Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Nosh 80: 'Close Encounters of Third Kind,' Harry Dean Stanton

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



APPETIZER: Review of Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Almost 40 years ago, in November, 1977, I enjoyed the most star-gazing press preview of my life. Afterwards I called home to Chicago from New York, as thrilled as a space visitor. Sure, New York is always another planet, but Close Encounters of the Third Kind is one-of-a-kind, a celestial trip that gives us a cosmic lift without leaving Earth. Of course it’s really about earthlings, not space visitors, and remains Spielberg’s most elating and high-spirited movie.

I went to our best plex for the film’s revival, wanting to see it again on a big screen (smaller framings dim the luster). I got smacked again smacked by Spielberg’s youthful power. His confident sense of entrancement, as people try to decipher why UFOs are popping up like cheerful light bandits, even in Muncie, Indiana, pulls us in at once. There is a brilliant French scientist, played by that humane beacon Francois Truffaut, who lucidly collates the sightings and sounds (the alien signals become John Williams’s inspired theme, worthy of 2001: A Tinkerbell).There are dazzled hicks, stunned peons, Indian chanters and Indiana guy Roy, played by Richard Dreyfuss (Roy’s wide appeal probably clinched the actor’s Oscar a few months later, for the sudsy romance The Goodbye Girl).

A close alien sighting, using a truck with the visual wit of Spielberg’s early film Duel, sunburns half of Roy’s face and colonizes his imagination. He compulsively builds a mystery mound (with shaving cream, then mashed potatoes, then soil), which will lead him on a frantic dreamer’s drive to Devil’s Peak, Wyoming. Spielberg turns cartoonish when Roy rips up the garden and house, shocking his wife (Teri Garr). But his obsessive quest carries us along, as he and other believers converge at the peak to welcome the giant “mother ship” along with Truffaut and government reps. If you argue that Spielberg oversells the big light show and the escalating music, you’re outside the movie without a ticket, as sad as an alienated alien.

Close Encounters, superbly photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond (who had done another Aladdin job with light in The Long Goodbye), became pure magic for me with little Cary Guffey, 3. As beam-eyed Barry, who sees the luminous alien craft as fabulous toys and playmates, he runs in bliss below the stars, childhood’s perfect envoy. Spielberg touches genius with the scene of Barry’s abduction in a fiery visitation both playful and terrifying, like a modern fairy tale. Guffey is forever this enchanting mascot of the movie’s myth (add depth of love from Melinda Dillon as his mother). The Barry scenes and the grand finale move me much more than E.T. One can fathom why Spielberg had to reach for work like Schindler’s List and Lincoln. but his talent was at its wide-eyed best when he brought the heavens to Indiana and Wyoming. He made gaping up at the mother ship the perfect metaphor for our old habit, gazing up at the movies.

You can be cynical about the big product plugs, and call this show a gaga party for moonbeams. But remember that the film came right after Vietnam and Watergate, and that in 1977 Jimmy Carter was providing a sort of Jiminy Cricket hopefulness. Now, in the  time of Harvey and Irma and Don and Vlad, Close Encounters seems from another time and better world. If you go to this thrilling entertainment for escape, hoping that benign aliens and giddy dreamers can lift you from doldrums, you’re no fool. Revel in the rise.   

SALAD (A List)
Harry Dean Stanton’s Ten Best Roles in a long film career, by my estimation: Travis in Paris, Texas (1984), Bud in Repo Man (1984), Jerry in Straight Time (1978), Asa in Wise Blood (1979), Philo in The Black Marble (1980), Kiser in Where the Lilies Bloom (1974), Jack in Pretty in Pink (1986), Johnnie in Wild at Heart (1990), Brain in Escape From New York (1981), Jack in Cockfighter (1974). And, of course, his best victim role: Brett in Alien (1979).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Orson is taking the week off, and not drinking.

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Singular actor and presence Harry Dean Stanton died on Sept. 15 at 91, two months after the death at 84 of Sam Shepard, author of Stanton’s finest role (in ‘Paris, Texas’): “Wim Wenders worried about Harry Dean’s age (he turned 57, Nastassja Kinski was 24), and then felt ‘it makes no difference, in fact it’s better.’ Stanton and Sam Shepard bonded over drinks in Santa Fe, Harry telling him that ‘I wanted to play something of beauty or sensitivity.’ Getting the unfinished script, he accepted pronto, craving to play Travis Clay Henderson. Wenders believed he ‘was frightened of playing a lead. The great thing for him was Travis’s innocence, even if it’s rather abstract … he has managed to retain that certain innocence.’ Dean Stockwell saw that ‘Harry had enormous difficulties because all the workings of character were internal,’ and helped Harry Dean find his groove. The result streams, yet ‘seamless’ is too smooth a term for both the process and the result. Truth rises as vents of inner pressure, a tri-tonality of silence, speech, music. After the shoot, Stanton happily told reporter Patrick Goldstein of ‘finally playing the part I wanted to play … It’s the story of my life we’re talking about.” (From the Stanton/Paris, Texas chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)

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



Harry Dean Stanton in his great romantic role, with Nastassja Kinski in Paris, Texas (Road Movie, 1984; director Wim Wenders, cinematographer Robby Müller).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Nosh 79: 'Tulip Fever' & More

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


APPETIZER: Review of Tulip Fever
When you attain fame and win two supporting Oscars (for     
Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained) by nailing Quentin Tarantino lines with an Austro-German accent, the lack of such crackling lines can be a handicap. Still, Christoph Waltz is echt pro. Playing a sturdy Dutch burgher in Tulip Fever, with only a few sharp-tongued remarks, doesn’t stop him from being the best actor in the movie.

What an odd, spotty, almost sophisticated movie it is. A throwback to old studio history pictures, when bulging cargos of plot were hauled across a shining Bijou screen in galleons of melodrama. In this busy plot, the rich Amsterdam trader Cornelis (Waltz), mourning his family lost to sickness, virtually buys himself a virgin bride, Sophia (Alicia Vikander). Fresh from a convent orphanage, where the head nun (Judi Dench) has the sly cunning of a Vatican-worthy Gordon Gekko, Sophia always looks a bit underfed. She can’t get pregnant, maybe because aging Cornelis has trouble perking up his “little soldier” (his phallic metaphor – a wry wink, but not a Tarantino zing).

Cornelis is cuckolded by his (and Sophia’s) young portrait painter, Jan, who is no Rembrandt or Vermeer. But Dane DeHaan does have facial echoes of a Leonardo: Di Caprio, circa 1995. There is a parallel plotline about Sophia’s servant and a bold, studly fishmonger. The painter plunges into the Dutch tulip craze, circa 1637, a speculation fever for exotic flowers with rare color striations (caused by a plant virus). The more intimate plunges of Jan and Sophia feature limited acting but lovely vistas of nudity, enshrined in what Hollywood used to call “Rembrandt lighting.” Cornelis becomes both a gullible dupe and an endearing hopeful, although Waltz often seems half-buried in his fabulous neck ruff.

Playwright Tom Stoppard, adapting a popular novel, may have let down director Justin Chadwick with his juicy but hectic script. They should have studied how Antonioni filmed stock trading mania in Eclipse, and how Jacques Feyder piled on Old World exhuberance in Carnival in Flanders. It doesn’t help that lean, pretty Vikander is less vitally sexy and light-catching than Holliday Grainger (the high-spirited servant Maria). Still, there are splendid sets wrapped around a canal, impressive photography by Eigil Bryld, and even a fat, drunken Bacchus on a donkey. Climaxes plop into place with an “OK, now I get it” resolution. Waltz is quite fine, though he isn’t starring in Rembrandt. Charles Laughton did so brilliantly, in 1936, but didn’t get an Oscar nomination.  

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
In Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, Janet Leigh has a special spark that she doesn’t quite have even in Hitchcock’s Psycho, and she explained why: “We rehearsed for two weeks prior to shooting (and) rewrote most of the dialog, all of us, which was also unusual. Mr. Welles wanted our input. It was a collective effort, and there was such a surge of creativity, of energy. You could feel the pulse growing … felt you were inventing something. Mr. Welles wanted to seize every moment. He didn’t want even one bland moment. He made you feel involved in a wonderful event.” (From Marc Eliot’s new book Charlton Heston).

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
It could well be the funniest American movie, but Mel Brooks’s The Producers received, like most comedies, modest attention at the Academy Awards: “Zero Mostel got no Oscar nomination. Gene Wilder lost, as supporting actor, to Jack Albertson in The Subject Was Roses, but Mel provided him with excellent compensations, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Brooks won the 1968 original script prize, probably for the bravura of his risk-taking. Surpassing any award was this puff by Gene Shalit, which justified his entire career as a TV blurbster: “No one will be seated in the last 88 minutes of The Producers. They’ll all be rolling around on the floor.” (From the Zero Mostel/The Producers chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Kindle, Nook and Amazon.)   

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



Mischa Auer (left) and Robert Arden eyeball each other in Mr. Arkadin (Mercury Productions, 1955; director Orson Welles, cinematographer Jean Bourgoin).  

For previous Noshes, scroll below. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Nosh 78: 'Wind River,' 'Columbus' & More

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


APPETIZER: Reviews of Wind River and Columbus
Wind River
With his compact, rather beaten-up fist of a face, Jeremy Renner is exactly right for Corey Lambert, his best role since breaking through in films with The Hurt Locker. Corey is a federal tracker and hunter (wolves, big cats) on the raw slopes of the Wind River Reservation in Montana. Looking for a mountain lion, he finds a murdered young woman’s remains. She is the daughter of a proud but now broken Native American (her fate echoes a tragedy in Corey’s own past). Gil Birmingham as the grieving father, Martin, rises next to Renner. When did you last see a big Indian man cry in a film? Martin is not Iron Eyes Cody, shedding a symbolic tear in a TV commercial.

The writer and director is Taylor Sheridan, who scripted Sicario and Hell or High Water. In this movie so full of pain and winter, the only cop-show touch is Corey guiding and helping a young FBI agent, though Elizabeth Olsen doesn’t flounder into tenderfoot clichés as she absorbs his lessons (“This isn’t the land of back-up, Jane. This is the land of you’re on your own”).We know there will be primal violence, yet even the rape scene doesn’t unhinge the story’s intricate balance of elements. Wind River, “inspired by actual events,” is a sort of Western with snowmobiles (just one horse). It is also a stark lancing of family tragedy and, without pushing, a view of Native American life as a rustic depresson where exploited poverty easily tips into drink, drugs and crime (the key villains are white).

Renner is exactly the man needed for this duty. Without macho brag and strut, he has the intuitive, manly presence that Randolph Scott and Robert Mitchum once had in the high saddle. The film would make a fine partner with Track of the Cat, William Wellman’s strange 1954 Western in which Mitchum hunted, and was hunted by, an almost mythic cougar. Wind River delves into people, astutely invading the inner wilds that so often bewilder them.     

Columbus
Curious, how modern architecture fits into movies: for futuristic menace (Metropolis) or exaltation (Things to Come), for vaulting ambition (The Fountainhead) or high-top luxury (North by Northwest), for morally suspect status (La Notte), for satirical wit (Playtime), for enigmatic display (Contempt). Famous structures resonate oppressively in Blade Runner but frame hopes of transformation in Gattaca. Also powerful are splendid documentaries like Ken Burns’s Frank Lloyd Wright, Yeshiro Teshigahara’s Antonio Gaudí and My Architect, Nathaniel Kahn’s brave tribute to his father Louis.

Which brings a curiosity: Columbus, not about the explorer – has there ever been a good movie about him? – but Columbus, Indiana. The modest town (pop. 44,000) has a constellation of “mid-century modern” edifices that place it on the aesthetic pilgrimage map. Cinephile and video essayist Kogonada’s first feature, set in Columbus, tells about the young architectural guide Casey, loyally bound to her recovering (addiction) mom. And a visiting Korean translator, Jin, who feels alienated from his stricken (comatose) father, an architectural scholar. Walking and talking, they twine like tendrils as she shows him Columbus and they mull the buildings. Notably masterworks by Finland’s Eliel Saarinen and his son Eero, but also a covered bridge, an old inn, even an alley. And each other.

The shifting perspectives of mood and challenge, of imposing buildings and embracing sites, has the kind of circling, space-shaped drama you can explore in big Japanese screen paintings. One-named Kogonada and his cinematographer, Elisha Christian, lace angles and details and surprises without plot rigging. Excellent Haley Lu Richardson’s searching growth as Casey is stimulated by the more worldly Jin of John Cho, far from Harold and Kumar. The film is an elegant drafting board on which all the lines connect (as in the recent, architecturally smart Paterson). The characters and the elegant art can lure you, like Columbus crossing an inland sea both provincial and cosmopolitan.    

SALAD (A List)
Ten Movies That Impressively Use Modern Architecture
(with director and year): North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959), A Summer Place (Delmer Daves, 1959), The Bellboy (Jerry Lewis, 1960), Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963), I Am Cuba (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964), Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967), The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975), Gattaca (Andrew Niccol, 1997), My Architect (Nathaniel Kahn, 2003) and Visual Acoustics (Eric Bricker, 2008).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Orson Welles played only Claudius in Hamlet, but on BBC TV in 1963 he “and Peter O’Toole discussed Hamlet. While O’Toole proposes a textually underfunded theory that Gertrude is a lesbian, Welles propounds something more interesting. That the principal fact about Hamlet is that he is a genius, a Mozartean prodigy of thought and feeling out of step with his own world, (an idea) which cannot help spilling thought and insight. It is a very Wellesian insight, a true one, and a significant instruction for the whole play.” (From writer-director Dominic Dromgoole’s new book Hamlet Globe to Globe). 

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Alec Guinness as the painter Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth gives a wonderful art lesson to a philistine friend, staring at a Jimson painting: “I’ll show you how to look at a picture … Don’t look at it. Feel it with your eyes. First feel the shapes in the flat areas, like patterns. Then feel it in the round. Feel all the smooth and sharp edges, the lights and the shades, the cools and the warms. Now feel the chair, the bathtub … the woman. Not any old tub or woman, but the tub of tubs, the woman of women.” (From the Alec Guinness/The Horse’s Mouth chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available on Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)

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


Sanctuary ceiling of Eero Saarinen’s North Christian Church, seen in Columbus (Front Row, 2017; director Kogonada, cinematographer Elisha Christian).

For previous Noshes, scroll below. 

Friday, September 1, 2017

Nosh 77: 'Logan Lucky,' Jerry Lewis & More

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


APPETIZER: Review of Logan Lucky, salute to Jerry Lewis
Logan Lucky
I pegged Logan Lucky as slumming for summer suckers. West Virginia hicks! NASCAR racing! Beef slab Channing Tatum! Even after guessing that director Steven Soderbergh must have ended his brief retirement and painter's easel time for something pleasurable, hesitation remained. Soderbergh’s slop-around Danny Ocean crime comedies included mediocre heists, and this is a heist movie. As it turns out, a sharp, funny one.

Tatum is Jimmy Logan, former coal miner, divorced but still a loyal dad, and savvy enough to plot a big steal from a hot car race’s cash haul. Tatum’s bulk becomes beef jerky with a dry twang. But chief yokel honors go to Adam Driver as brother Clyde, a bartender with a prosthetic left arm (Iraq service). Driver, recently the gentle, reflective poet in Paterson, speaks in metronomic blips of deadpan, as if distilling hillbilly diction into rare moonshine. There is some vocal DNA from Billy Bob Thornton’s Karl in Sling Blade.

Without utterly patronizing its folk, the movie approaches West Virginia on the familiar gravel road of hee-haw satire (the script is by Rebecca Blunt, perhaps a pseudonym). Trump is not mentioned, but the red subtext looms. To the Tatum/Driver anchor Soderbergh adroitly barnacled Katie Holmes, Dwight Yoakam, Hilary Swank and singer LeAnn Rimes. Plus Daniel Craig as Joe Bang, a snow-haired convict who moves like constipated muscle. Finally, we get James Bond chaw-drawling “Gimme two packs of those Gummi Bears.” The movie has a sunny, frisky spirit, and the heist action does not depend on heavy violence. The retro-toony flavor (very Coen Bros.) includes the bravura use of pneumatic tubes. The Robin Hood angle is maybe a touch much, or not. Logan Lucky is a hoedown, not a letdown.  

Jerry Lewis, 1926-2017


My pal Albert cried. My buddy Gary looked shaken. I felt lousy, although my reverence had largely switched to other idols (Bogart, Peck, Lancaster, the new dazzler Audrey Hepburn). We movie-hooked buddies were age 11 when we heard (July, 1956) that Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin were ending their act. This felt like an atomic disaster, a mushroom cloud beyond Ike's control, crushing laughter. Although comedy was getting smarter (Steve Allen, Ernie Kovacs, Jonathan Winters, Mort Sahl), the giddy gift of Martin & Lewis would never come again. And no one held a fan base in thrall like Jerry the Brat, so crazy and loveable (singer Dean was his blithe, canny foil, if not stooge). 

After the epic rupture, Jerry Lewis took a long time to exit. He departed on Aug. 20, at 91. His long journey to tabloid fossil celebrity included many mediocre films, heaps of poor TV, squirm-inducing telethons, spats, illnesses, Percodan addiction, a TV “reunion” with Dean that was really an ego trip for Frank Sinatra. But on the gut level where belly laffs rule, Jerry remained the king of comedy. The shrine custodian of that truth was Martin Scorsese, who cast Lewis as a shrewd, petulant show-biz god in The King of Comedy. Subtle at last, Jerry made Robert De Niro seem much too busy acting.

The tiresome cliché was that the French loved Jerry, we tolerated him. Nonsense (c’est absurdité). Only Americans of a certain vintage truly appreciated M & L’s glory. The team was our tonic rebuke to polio, TB, Stalin, McCarthy, Korea, the Cold War, Abbott and Costello. We felt on top of the world because Jerry and Dean were on top. After their split, fame endured. Dean crooned, acted, ruled prime time TV for a while, sported with Sinatra’s Rat Pack, died in 1995. Jerry, a control freak driven by a rat pack of neurotic compulsions, became his own kind of movie master (best evidence: The Bellboy and The Nutty Professor). His allure was lessened by a gain: weight. The beanpole frame, so essential for his manic goofs and vivid contrast with Dean, filled-out maturely (and took on a veneer of show-biz smugness). The aging Jerry was less fun, less likeable, at times a jerk.

What gave Lewis’s definitive work its slam-bam power was a fearlessness that said: I do it like this – watch me! His chutzpah went beyond Jewish, it was Olympian (after a decade, Dean’s cocky loner’s spirit had to break away). Jerry tended to make taste fall on its fancy ass. So did Dean, for all his swank threads and buttercream cool. As partners they were the Boffo Boys, although their luster seldom had Sinatra’s swinging brilliance. Frank, who could also trample taste, found a late-career vanity anthem, My Way. That bugle belch of boastful self-pity may have more closely suited Lewis, the proud, cranky wizard of fun who must have increasingly missed the go-for-broke kid he had been. He was very easy to criticize, but he remains the Jerry of Jerries.    

SALAD (A List)
16 Satisfying Heist Movies:
The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950), The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichton, 1951), Crime Wave (André de Toth, 1952), The Ladykillers (Alex Mackendrick, 1955), Bob Le Flambeur (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1956), The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956), Big Deal on Madonna Street (Mario Monicelli, 1958), Seven Thieves (Henry Hathaway, 1960), Ocean’s Eleven (Lewis Milestone, 1960), Topkapi (Jules Dassin, 1964), Robbery (Peter Yates, 1967), The Getaway (Sam Peckinpah, 1972), Heat (Michael Mann, 1995), Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson, 1996), The Thomas Crown Affair (John McTiernan, 1999) and The Italian Job (F. Gary Gray, 2003).   

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Nobody has been criticized more for The Magnificent Ambersons than Tim Holt as spoiled, immature George. The Westerns actor was coached by Orson Welles into a nuanced performance, but suffered from studio cutting. Holt was “given a difficult role (and) is supposed to remain stiff, arrogant, somewhat ridiculously old-fashioned. Some of his more powerful scenes were reshot or cut entirely. As a result, he becomes an exceedingly bland presence.” How appealing Holt could be in a top movie was made clear six years later by his Bob Curtin in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. (Quote from James Naremore’s The Magic World of Orson Welles.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
In 1960 Fellini’s La Dolce Vita lifted Marcello Mastroianni to world stardom. Previously “his niche was playing amiable pals, disposable lovers, wayward charmers. He wasn’t a virility totem like Vittorio Gassman, did not flash Rossano Brazzi’s cashmere elegance. He gained serious attention from Visconti’s White Nights, but Fellini was his express train to become Italian film’s male face for over three decades. Sophia Loren was the female face, and she would exult ‘What a couple we were! Simple, beautiful, real!” (From the Mastroianni/La Dolce Vita chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available on Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)

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



Jerry Lewis cooks colorful comedy as Julius Kelp in The Nutty Professor (Paramount Pictures 1963; director Jerry Lewis, cinematographer W. Wallace Kelley).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Nosh 76: 'The Glass Castle,' 'An Inconvenient Sequel' & More

By David Elliott
                                                  
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, fresh each Friday.
(Note: Nosh 77 will appear on Friday, Sept. 1)

APPETIZER: Reviews of The Glass Castle and An Inconvenient Sequel 

The Glass Castle
Pulling off a strong family film is tough work. Many slop into suds, or browse through an album of clichés. The Glass Castle is based upon Jeannette Walls’s crowded 2005 memoir of growing up as the bright, literary child (with two sisters and a brother) of Rex and Rose Mary Walls. This saga rarely sags, and is rich in human moments.

Rex is a rude drinker and a dream hustler (that’s his double helix of hope and despair). His mind bursts with plans, but, as we learn, he is a boozer with a deep inner wound, hauling the family into his flighty fantasies. He envisions building a glass home, a “castle,” clearly a pipe dream when you see the dumps he can afford (the Walls barely have walls). And yet, Rex is inspiring, funny, a dynamo of gusto. And he is Woody Harrelson’s best performance since The Messenger in 2009 (the hair is iffy; like Ed Harris and Robert Duvall, Woody looks better without a rug). Rex’s tumbleweedy wife Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) is fretful but loyal, and he supports her painting (some is not bad, though her comment about Picasso is inane).

Don’t be a prune and ask why Watts and Harrelson, over 20 years, barely age. The film’s heart is not the marriage but family life, anchored by Rex’s very demanding bond with Jeannette. She is acted by hug-bug Chandler Head in childhood, in early adolescence by Ella Anderson, and by nuanced Brie Larson in maturity (Anderson’s teen or pre-teen performance rivals Jacob Lofland in Mud). When director Destin Daniel Cretton really plunges into the family – as in Rex’s cold-turkey crisis, a swimming lesson, and a screaming blow-up – he approaches the vitality of Alan Parker’s best film, Shoot the Moon. Cretton stuns us at the start, showing a child in peril as the soundtrack wails “My Wild Irish Rose.” He sustains a forceful dramatic line through many changes (crucial supports were designer Sharon Seymour and cinematographer Brett Pawlak).

Inevitably this busy movie simplifies an unusually dense memoir, and some reviews have tried to slot the messy family (immature parents, maturing children) into snug TV and PC cubicles. Some of the story’s hurly-burly comes close to soap opera, and a reunion dinner shades towards Norman Rockwell (was this added late, under pressure?). Forget minor demerits. The Glass Castle is engrossingly alive. I first knew and wrote about Destin Cretton when he was a bright student filmmaker in San Diego. His progress is less surprising than confirming, and may it continue.

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power
If the world is going to hell, Al Gore is not going to spare us the Dantean downside. Eleven years after An Inconvenient Truth spotlighted our daily, guilty contributions to global warming, he’s back full of scientific fire, informative brimstone, stunning footage and more Gore than before (is body bulk his stress relief?). Anyway, the calories that count are global. The crisis is vast, growing and only marginally impacted, so far, by big advances in clean energy (solar is booming, even in China).

The subtle but devastating reaction on Gore’s face when he realizes Trump has been elected is a logo for international nausea. Only months earlier, the Nobel winner and 2000 presidential “loser” used his political skills to broker India into the Paris climate accords. If you consider what President Gore could have done from 2001 to 2009 (and not have done: Iraq), you might feel disposed to let Florida go under without a snorkel. But the seawater sloshing into Miami Beach, our treasury of classic Deco, is sickening.

Most likely this film preaches to the choir (how many Trump districts will see it theatrically?). But maybe it’s time for the stupefied congregation to notice that the choir is screaming “Wake up, the church is on fire!” Gore’s smart, angry, honorably passionate warning reminds us that humanity has always been in a tense contest of “by tooth and claw” versus “by the skin of our teeth.” Al Gore makes a good case that his skin in the game is ours. All of us.

SALAD (A List)
20 Dramatic Movies About American Families (with director and year): Alice Adams (George Stevens, 1935), The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940), The Little Foxes (William Wyler, 1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942), Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (Roy Rowland, 1945), The Southerner (Jean Renoir, 1945), East of Eden (Elia Kazan, 1955), Friendly Persuasion (William Wyler, 1956), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Richard Brooks, 1958), Home From the Hill (Vincente Minnelli, 1960), A Raisin in the Sun (Daniel Petrie, 1961), Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Sidney Lumet, 1962), Sounder (Martin Ritt, 1972), The Godfather (Francis Coppola, 1972), Shoot the Moon (Alan Parker, 1982), Running on Empty (Sidney Lumet, 1988), Avalon (Barry Levinson, 1990), What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (Lasse Hallstrom, 1993), Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014) and Fences (Denzel Washington, 2016).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Nothing detonated Orson’s firecracker quite like Irving Thalberg, the famous MGM producer who infamously ruined Erich von Stroheim, John Gilbert and Buster Keaton: “In his whole career he didn’t make a picture that will last 50 years from now, and still he’s revered. Romeo and Juliet produced by Thalberg, directed by Cukor, was the cultural high point of his years of moviemaking. Now, you cannot sit through four minutes of it, it’s so terrible! Norma Shearer (Mrs. Thalberg) with those tiny eyes, and Leslie Howard, a Hungarian Jew, as Veronese teenagers?” (Orson Welles, in Henry Jaglom’s My Lunches With Orson. Howard, born in England to a Hungarian Jewish dad and German Jewish mum, became the quintessential, quick-tongued Englishman.)    

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“Stanley Donen could pop pizzazz. Small, cocky, alert as a ferret, he had survived Gene Kelly’s armored ego and, irking Cole Porter, had filched ‘Be a Clown’ from The Pirate for revamping as ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ in Singin’ in the Rain (in that he turned sound’s traumatic arrival into pure joy). Donen’s Hepburn trilogy – Funny Face, Charade, Two For the Road – are unique entertainments. With the pragmatic oomph of a South Carolina Jewish dance addict turned studio politician, he was genetically show-biz. At 73 he topped the 1998 Oscars by tap-dancing ‘Cheek to Cheek.” (From the Audrey Hepburn/Funny Face chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)

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


James Mason and Kathleen Ryan approach the fateful end of Odd Man Out (Rank, 1947; director Carol Reed, cinematographer Robert Krasker).

For previous Noshes, scroll below. 

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Nosh 75: 'Atomic Blonde,' 'Maudie' & More

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


APPETIZER: Reviews of Atomic Blonde and Maudie
Atomic Blonde
It opens with the famous TV clip of Ronald Reagan in Berlin, demanding “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” As Atomic Blonde pinballs its dizzy plot, I kept thinking “please, tear down these clichés.” A little desperately, I tried imagining Reagan as English undercover agent Lorraine, the “atomic blonde.” No way! She’s Charlize Theron: sleek, buff, lethal, freeze-dried emotionally. She is hunting for “the list,” a secret “atom bomb of information that could extend the Cold War another 40 years.” But it is late 1989 and the Berlin Wall, at just 28, is about to fall and take down the Cold War.

Director David Leitch filmed an East Berlin so grimly gray that he makes The Spy Who Came in From the Cold seem like a Carmen Miranda musical. Did the brutal DDR (East German) regime died from color anemia? Theron, in zippy black-and-white, kills with kinetic panache. But her flatlined acting draws no expressive blood from the source, a graphic novel. Caught in a frenzied turnstile of violence and loud song blasts, Theron is zombified along with James McAvoy as a snappy punk-hunk. Also Eddie Marsan, John Goodman, Toby Jones and, as the British spy chief, James Faulkner (my nominee to star in Trapped With Trump: The Gen. John Kelly Story). French agent Sofia Boutella salivates carnality with Theron, whose sexiness arrives from a cold tap.

On its barnstorming terms Atomic Blonde “works,” but is so over-determined as a plex thriller that it has no dimensions except ballistic wow and plotted murk. Blood splashes the lens, and derivations clobber everything: bits of Tarantino, Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), franchises (Bond, Bourne, Matrix) and, ancestrally, John Le Carré’s spy fictions. Even the most drip-dry  passages of Le Carré’s great TV movies, Tinker, Tailor… and Smiley’s People, both starring infallible Alec Guinness, had more life, wit, suspense and depth than any part of Atomic Blonde. But for fans of atomic mayhem, such slow, talky shows are tepid tea at a dull hotel. 

Maudie
It’s called Maudie, though she calls herself Maude. That lean to cuteness in a fact-rooted film doesn’t overwhelm Sally Hawkins as Maude Lewis, who was “born funny” (juvenile arthritis). Abusively ostracized, she found another loner: Everett, a fishmonger on the Nova Scotia coast. He wanted a housekeeper for his simple shack. Overcoming his sometimes grim machismo, Maude charms, pecks and steadies him into marriage, and she gaily decorates the place with her simple, vivid paintings. They puzzle Everett, no aesthete, but win an enthusiastic patron from New York.

Let’s avoid curatorial labels like “naif” for Maude’s art, which looks like a childish variant on the famously (in my youth) nostalgic pictures of Grandma Moses. In Aisling Walsh’s film art is clearly Maude’s life raft, and Hawkins makes it credible. Her Maude is savvy, flashing some of the sardonic smarts that made Hawkins a sensation in Happy Go Lucky. The Hawke and Hawkins match is a fine pairing of thespian wings, in a tale of survivors that has been accused of softening the original story. But the actors bring real integrity to it, and the Canadian settings resonate.

As the couple ages, turning more creaky and cranky, the story takes on a gravity of real pathos. True, you might laugh when Everett, who first ranked Maude below the chickens in his (pardon me) pecking order, now places her above the dogs. At moments the movie verges on lampoon, like Ethan Frome headin’ down the La Strada road to find a new life On Golden Pond. Still, here is a piercingly humane view of a marriage that, if not made in heaven, rose above hell. 

SALAD (A List)
Fifteen Outstanding Canadian Films (with director, year):
The 49th Parallel (The Invaders; Michael Powell, 1941), The Luck of Ginger Coffey (Irvin Kershner, 1964), Goin’ Down the Road (Donald Shebib, 1970), Mon Oncle Antoine (Claude Jutra, 1971), The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (Ted Kotcheff, 1974), The Silent Partner (Darryl Duke, 1979), The Grey Fox (Phillip Borsos, 1982), I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (Patricia Rozema, 1987), Dead Ringer (David Cronenberg, 1988), Jesus of Montreal (Denys Arcand, 1989), 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould (Francois Girard, 1993), Away From Her (Sarah Polley, 2006), My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2007), Barney’s Version (Richard J. Lewis, 2010) and Monsieur Lazhar (Philippe Falandreau, 2011).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
As a virtuoso director Welles never surpassed the sequence in The Trial (1962) of K (Anthony Perkins) in panic flight down a wooden corridor, hounded by a swarm of girl “groupies” who “pursue him, their screams filling the soundtrack. Stripes of light flood through the slatted walls and make a dancing abstract pattern on K’s body as he dashes towards the camera, which was being pushed by a Yugoslav runner. Welles: ‘We put the camera on a wheelchair, it was the only way to move it along the wooden planks.’ Reverse tracking shots sweep back alternatively in front of K and the girls, their shadows writhing on the walls …The sequence runs less than half a minute but contains 25 closely knit shots.” (From Peter Cowie, The Cinema of Orson Welles.) 

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
For John Huston, filming The Treasure of the Sierra Madre mostly in Mexico meant few studio comforts: “He chose as base two villages in primal Michoacán. Local extras were so humbly respectful that when he shouted ‘Silencio!’ they covered their mouths. Anti-Yanqui press roiled the filming in Tampico, until an editor received his mordita (bribe). Artist Diego Rivera intervened with federal authorities busy protecting the national honor (dollars helped).” (From the Humphrey Bogart/Treasure of the Sierra Madre chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, serving your attentive pleasure on Amazon, Kindle and Nook.)

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


Ida (Katherine Helmond) beauties-up in Brazil (Universal, 1985; director Terry Gilliam, cinematographer Roger Pratt).

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Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Nosh 74: 'Marie Curie,' 'Letters from Baghdad' & More

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



APPETIZER: Reviews of Marie Curie and Letters From Baghdad

Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge
You don’t expect a film about a great female scientist to include a pistol duel in the woods, but then you haven’t seen Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge. Curie (b. Maria Sklodowska) was surely Poland’s greatest export to France since pianist Frédéric Chopin (b. Fryderyk Chopin). She married the brilliant French chemist Pierre Curie, co-shared (by his insistence) the Nobel Prize, and after his tragic death became the first person to win a second Nobel. She co-discovered radium and polonium, pioneered the crucial theories of radioactivity (and cancer treatments), designed and conducted experiments (which finally killed her), uplifted female scientists and – touché!—was the Sorbonne’s first female prof, and the first woman buried in the Panthéon.

Marie Noelle’s bravura film makes us forget Greer Garson’s Madame Curie (1943), who hugged her nobility like a tragic fur from Bonwit Teller. In this Franco-Polish production (German financing), Noelle and photographer Michal Englert achieve French light of such Impressionist impact that we can almost believe radium is the source. Noelle gives us the scientific excitement, the work, the friendship with Einstein, the misogynist opposition including imbecilic anti-Semitism (she wasn’t Jewish), and Marie’s love of Pierre and their kids, notably Irene (who went on to her own Nobel). The couple stand before luminous vials of radium. Pierre: “It is glowing from inside.” Marie: “Like you.” OK, a touch corny, but great, radiant corn!

Noelle’s first film was Obsession (1997), with Daniel Craig, and Marie Curie goes well beyond. There is high fixation in Marie’s science, her feminism, her love of Pierre, her recovery from his death (street accident), her compensating love for Pierre’s great assistant Paul Langevin, which caused scandal. Noell has expert instinct for vividly cross-stitching the creative and personal, as Robert Altman did in his Van Gogh film Vincent and Theo. If Karolina Gruszka doesn’t quite have the Garbo intensity of Poland’s great Maja Komorowska, she attains her own erotic power, salted and served with innate dignity and intellect.

I haven’t seen Daniel Olbrychski in many years (he seemed to be in half the Polish films of the '70s), but here he is, excellent as a preening swine. Also terrific: Charles Berling as Pierre, and Arieh Worthalter as Paul (who fights the duel). Piotr Glowacki’s Einstein easily rivals the recent TV saga Genius. It is really Gruszka’s movie, by way of Noelle. When Paul calls Marie “my beaming radium queen,” we can believe it. Of course, there is also an old-school male to grunt, “Not bad for a woman, eh?” That “eh” is from the periodic table of macho piggery.  

Letters from Baghdad

The masters of war who took us into the Iraq quagmire, in 2003, probably would have cared little for a British film that is a feminist history lesson, poetically realized. Or cared more than a dry, dusty fig for the movie’s subject: Gertrude Bell (1868-1926). In any case, the beautiful and stirring documentary Letters from Baghdad was not made until 2015, a dozen years after the start of our Bush-born misadventure.

Bell came from a wealthy if declining Yorkshire family, and tore herself from her roots (a lovely estate, a cherished father) after a youthful trip to Persia (Iran) besotted her. One of the great Victorian travelers, Bell applied her Oxford-honed brain to mastering Arabic (“I am so wildly interested in Arabic – and the fun of it!”). Alarming the Ottoman Turks, she led her own camel troupe into the baking interior of Saudia Arabia. Her enchantment with Brit-run Mesopotamia, once fabled Babylon, would lead to her advising Winston Churchill (as did her friend T.E. Lawrence “of Arabia”) into forging the kingdom of Iraq after WWI. The acerbic, tireless Bell became a power, “one of the boys” in a blunt but feminine way. The man she loved was killed in World War I and Gertrude became, in essence, betrothed to exotic history. After Iraq was born, she founded and guided Baghdad’s museum of antiquities.

An excellent tribute and time capsule, Letters touches greatness with its form: an almost Arabian Nights streaming of old news clips, travelogs, personal movies and Bell’s often wonderful photos, in a shimmering cascade of times reborn. The film has a haunted fluency, Bell’s strong face looming among sandy vistas. Her letters are read with High Victorian grace by Tilda Swinton. Actors speak as other key figures, studio-posed in period costume. The makers, including editor Sabine Krayenbuhl (who co-directed with Zeva Oelbaum) and designer Erik Rehl, achieve perhaps the most poetic use of vintage film since Peter Delpeut’s entrancing salute to proto-cinema, Lyrical Nitrate.  

SALAD (A List)
Memorable Women Starring in Documentaries:
Pina Bausch in Pina, 2011; Antonia Brico in Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman, 1974; Louise Brooks in Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu, 1998; Marlene Dietrich in Marlene, 1984; Traudl Junge in Hitler’s Secretary, 2002; Vivian Maier in Finding Vivian Maier, 2013; Carmen Miranda in Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business, 1995; Ayn Rand in Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, 1996; Leni Riefenstahl in The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, 1993; Eleanor Roosevelt in The Eleanor Roosevelt Story, 1965; Nina Simone in What Happened, Miss Simone?, 2015; Patti Smith in Patti Smith: Dream of Life, 2008; Susan Tom in My Flesh and Blood, 2003; Amy Winehouse in Amy, 2015; Gwen Welles in Angel on My Shoulder, 1998.      

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Partly for legal reasons, partly from pride-of-inspiration, Orson Welles always tried to deflect the idea that Citizen Kane is centrally about William Randolph Hearst. In 1941 he sought to elude that notion in an article: “The easiest way to draw parallels between Kane and other famous publishers is not to see the picture. It is the portrait of a public man’s private life. I have met some publishers, but I know none of them well enough to make them possible models. Constant references have been made to the career of Hearst, drawing parallels to my film. That is unfair to Hearst and to Kane.” His viewpoint has not prevailed. (Quote from Frank Brady’s fine biography Citizen Welles.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Among those thrilled in 1935 by Katharine Hepburn’s moving Alice Adams was young Pauline Kael: “Hepburn made her feel ‘as if you were inside her skin.’ The Bay Area girl ‘was 16 when the film was first shown, and during the slapstick dinner-party scene, when Alice was undergoing agonies of comic humiliation, I started up the aisle to leave the theater, and was almost out the door before I snapped back to my senses.’ Alice Adams still snaps our senses.”
(From the Hepburn/Alice Adams chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, obtainable from Amazon, Nook, Kindle.)

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


A Pina Bausch dancer in Pina (IFC Films, 2011; director Wim Wenders; cinematographers Helene Louvart, Jorg Widmer).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.