Thursday, May 18, 2017

Nosh 65: 'Fate of the Furious,' 'Risk' & More


By David Elliott
                                                  


Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, fresh each Friday.
NOTE: The next Nosh will be Friday, June 2.

APPETIZER: Reviews of Fate of the Furious and Risk

The Fate of the Furious
The fate of The Fate of the Furious is more money. I waited until global grosses hit around $1.2 billion before contributing my senior $6.75. The eighth in the series, which began with The Fast and the Furious in 2001, cost $250 million, the sort of franchise loot that assures everything except quality. The latest big, loud rubber-burner is more exciting than slowly letting air out of your tires, but probably less than getting a signature  shammy cloth from Elon Musk (films 9 and 10 are on the assembly line).

Naturally Vin Diesel repeats as Dom, hottest wheel man on our planet. Once sleek, the Yul Brynner of street-cred motorheads, Dom is now a sort of Chunkie Cheese (but buff cheese). The movie opens in blindingly sunny Havana, less a capital than a postcard screaming “Come down, gringos, and bring money!” A challenge race, roaring its effects, goes from implausible to absolute idiocy in seconds. Dom, lightly attired, rolls from his burning car at about 120 m.p.h., lands unscratched on asphalt and wins despite the meltdown. He wins over the Cubans like a bald, beardless Fidel.

Diesel joins his usual crew or (as he insists) family, including squeeze Michelle Rodriguez (rightly missed is the late Paul Walker). Once the scene switches to Berlin, dark as a Hitler migraine, Britain’s Jason Stathem appears, projecting his special brand of steroid void (his facial stubble is mocked as a “whisker biscuit”). Kurt Russell, the jaunty boss of something very global, wisely treats the movie as a goof-along. As his son or stooge, there is Scott Eastwood, Clint’s boy, who might achieve the career of Pat Wayne. Ludacris preens, and Helen Mirren’s weird drop-in probably cost a few million.

Stealing the chrome laurels are Charlize Theron as chilly villainess Cifer, basically a promo float for Theron’s coming summer blast Atomic Blonde, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Dom’s sworn enemy (poor Stathem stares up at him like Mini-me). A recent cover story in National Review hailed the Rock (pardon me, Mr. Johnson) as “the celebrity we need now.” It seems that Trump’s vanity effusion has not saturated our zeal for mindless celebrity.

When the plot pulls in a baby, Dom cries a perfect, CGI tear. While New York is trashed by Cifer on a crazed hacking spree, we are supposed to care about Dom’s faltering family values, which is like finding that your deluxe road beast has a motor made of taffy. For all its super-charged moves, the latest Furious isn’t going anywhere. It’s a pit stop.

Risk
Julian Assange, with his unlined face and saintly-sexy white hair, was the poster lad of the subversive elite of cyber hackers in the early Obama years and the doomed Arab Spring. Then a rival wizard emerged: hyper-cool CIA escapee and intel dumper Edward Snowden (whom Assange aided). Assange faced accusations of sexual assault in Sweden, went into official hiding in Britain, then fled into less posh refuge at Ecuador’s embassy in London. By then Snowden was like a fish bunkered in a samovar, in Moscow “sanctuary.” Assange saw his Wikileaks mole kingdom tarnished by suspected complicity with Russia’s invasion of the 2016 U.S. election.

So director Laura Poitras, who made a whispery, furtive movie about Snowden, Citizenfour, is stuck with Risk, an often stir-crazy, opaque documentary on Assange. The film wanders down the years, Poitras heard but not seen, Assange seen but often talking in haiku. What does he think about the sex charges, apart from murmuring about angry feminists? Can he explain what Wikileaks hopes to achieve? Was his on-video meeting with Lady Gaga more than a shared ego massage? Why does he feel betrayed by Poitras? Is her fascination with him flaking? Is there a Putin-Assange Pact? Does he like Ecuadorian cooking?

Such questions float around Risk, unanswered. It should not have been released in this jittery, loose-binder form. Fretting these days about poor, pale Julian seems pointless.

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Often irascible and spikey when working for other directors, Welles was typically a happy maestro on his own sets. “He always said,” recalled Peter Bogdanovich, “that he liked ‘to give the actors a good time.’ And he did. He always made it a lot of fun. Orson was funny, he was teasing. He was warm, encouraging, spontaneous. He loved anything that you did, was effusive if he liked it, kidded around if he didn’t, never made you feel anything except that you probably were gonna be better than you’d ever been in your life.” Alas, such testimonials are in smaller circulation than a tape of Welles exploding at the hapless makers of a corny commercial, one of his last and least gigs. (Bogdanovich quote from Robert K. Elder’s The Film That Changed My Life).  

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
The tap root of The Producers was Mel Brooks’ earlier zest as a writer “for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. Albert Goldman described the writers: ‘They’d light their cigars, form a circle around Sid, watch him improvise like a one-man band until they were turned on. Then they’d jump up, start throwing lines, capping each other.’ Imogene Coca was ‘distaff’ zany, ‘the timid woman who, when aroused, can beat a tiger to death with a feather.” (From the Zero Mostel/The Producers chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, yours at Amazon, Nook, or Kindle.):

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


Kay Francis and Herbert Marshall play for love in Trouble in Paradise (Paramount, 1932; director Ernst Lubitsch; cinematographer Victor Milner).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.


Thursday, May 11, 2017

Nosh 64: 'Their Finest,' 'Colossal' & More


By David Elliott
                                                


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

APPETIZER: Reviews of Their Finest and Colossal

Their Finest
Pleasure in Their Finest (and I certainly had some) relies on a triple nostalgia: for Britain’s heroic Blitz years of 1940 and ’41, for the plucky patriotism of English films at that time, and for the humane coziness that  English movies brought to a pitch of charm and wit, mainly in the Ealing  pictures after the war. Made with high craft by Lone Scherfig, it’s about a  propaganda film patched together for fast release after the Dunkirk rescue. That operation saved the neck of Britain’s almost cooked goose from Hitler’s army, inspiring some great Churchill rhetoric and this movie (and Christopher Nolan’s massive Dunkirk, coming in July). Using an English beach, fake boats, retro effects and a corny script (but isn’t Casablanca fairly corny also?), Scherfig still gives us a fine sense of that amazing, frightening time on the “sceptr’d isle.”

No Churchill (just posters), but here is Jeremy Irons as a war minister, knocking off a chunk of Henry V to rally the filmers. He also saddles them with the need for a gung-ho Yank hero, a volunteer pilot who can’t act. This doubles the stress of the young scripting team, played by Gemma Arterton and Sam Claflin (romance beckons, of course). Helping the American empowers snappish old pro Ambrose (Bill Nighy), who recovers the zip that once gave him dash as a matinee idol. Has Nighy ever given a bad performance? Or one not graced by his sly, deft, mildly dotty finesse? As this vain but touchingly committed ham, he has the sort of scene-lifting fun that Peter O’Toole bestowed on My Favorite Year.

Scherfig made a star of young Carey Mulligan with another look-back story,  An Education. He won’t do the same for Arterton, with her smaller luster, yet she is game, pretty and heartfelt. In the final quarter there is a small plot shock, but Their Finest can, like Britain, take it. Though a comedy in its best tactics, the film has a good strategic edge: we sense the bombs, the blood, the personal losses. And many lines crackle (even the weird “spawning spontaneously in the sawdust”). Dunkirk will find its own way to the famous beaches, no doubt closer to Joe Wright’s Atonement and Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.

Colossal
There endures a certain resentment of Anne Hathaway. Envy? She does resemble Audrey Hepburn plus Shakespeare’s dream of a perfect rose. Maybe it’s the contrast with her slightly tinny, American voice, or because her talent doesn’t always rise to her beauty. Cast those doubts away for Colossal.

As screw-up Gloria, Hathaway is funny and fetching and often goofy-drunk. Her British lover (Dan Stevens, the long-lamented Matthew Crawley of Downton Abbey) kicks her out of his swank Manhattan digs, so she returns, tail dragging, to her hometown. There the hub of interest is a bar run by Gloria’s childhood pal, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis, who seems to be reaching for an improbable convergence of Russell Crowe and Paul Giamatti).

The director, finely named Nacho Vigalondo, wrote a script that also seems to drink a lot. The “plot” involves Gloria’s startling, hungover insight that she has a behavior-controlling brain link with a huge monster lizard terrorizing Seoul, South Korea (as in old Godzilla days). Down at their past playground, Oscar also gets into trans-Pacific telepathy. Not even the combined gifts of James Joyce and Ray Bradbury could find a tight narrative thread, but that barely matters.

The strangeness, as sitcomical Americana intersects Korean panic mobs (maybe a bit too topical right now, in the age of Kim Jong-Trump), makes Colossal one of those oddities you won’t forget – movies like Eat the Peach, Trees Lounge, Bubba Ho-Tep, The Plot Against Harry, Tremors, Withnail and I, Slow West, Wise Blood, Chan Is Missing, O’Horten and Whiskey Galore. And I’ve never liked Hathaway quite this much before.

SALAD (A List)
Twelve Outstanding British WWII Movies ranked by quality, with director: Fires Were Started (Humphrey Jennings), The Life and Death of Col. Blimp (Michael Powell), The Purple Plain (Robert Parrish), 49th Parallel (a.k.a. The Invaders; Michael Powell), Hope and Glory (John Boorman), Atonement (Joe Wright), In Which We Serve (Noel Coward, David Lean), The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean), One of Our Aircraft is Missing (Michael Powell), The Cruel Sea (Charles Frend), The Dam Busters (Michael Anderson) and The Cockleshell Heroes (José Ferrer).  

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
At the grand “Night of 100 Stars” at Radio City Music Hall in 1982, singer Tony Bennett felt the jitters before going on, but “Orson Welles was backstage, and he stood there smoking a big cigar and staring at me. He could tell that I was having a case of the butterflies, and with perfect grace he said to me, ‘I go to every party at Sinatra’s house, and he plays nothing but Tony Bennett records,’ Just at that moment the announcer said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Tony Bennett!’ Orson knew exactly what to say to help me get through. No wonder he was a great director.” (From Tony Bennett’s memoir The Good Life).    

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“Gulley Jimson (in The Horse’s Mouth) has a sexual forwardness rare for Alec (Guinness). He had slyly spoofed the machismo of military men, taking it to a high level in Bridge on the River Kwai and Tunes of Glory. He admired alpha-male friends like Jack Hawkins, Bill Holden and Harry Andrews, and envied Richard Burton’s stellar wallop. Piers Paul Read’s biography suggests a closeted gay or bi impulse but never finds the closet key. Possibly Alec didn’t either (and had a strong marriage).” (From the Alec Guinness/The Horse’s Mouth chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)


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


Keira Knightley in a peaceful moment of Atonement (Focus Features, 2007; director Joe Wright, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Nosh 63: 'The Circle,' 'Lost City of Z' & More


By David Elliott

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


APPETIZER: Reviews of The Circle and The Lost City of Z

The Circle
Thank heaven for Emma Watson! How often we felt that, watching her brainy little Hermione saving Harry and Ron in the Harry Potter series. Watson delivers again, as Mae in The Circle. She is rescued from a dismal temp job, invited to join the Bay Area’s smart, rising elite at The Circle. The ring-shaped, corporate campus is as cool and glassy as Watson’s American accent. The Circle is a Hogwarts School minus magic and medievalism, its British witches and wizards replaced by computers and their giddy human servants.

The movie, directed by James Ponsoldt from a script by him and original writer (novelist) Dave Eggers, has Mae as a recruit who can’t quite swallow the brightly feathered hook of futurism. The visionary fly-caster is boss Eamon Bailey. He and his partner (Patton Oswalt), among the few people over 40 at the vast complex, are angling to destroy “criminal” secrecy by eliminating privacy, by creating ominiscient spy-tech. Thrilled by this  smothering promise of “transparent” democracy, young savants glow like Mormon missionaries programmed by robots. The film has a wry hum of smiling menace from Tom Hanks as  Bailey, his snappy great-guyness twinkled by sinister shadings.

But it’s Watson who keeps the concepts circling, by not being too cerebral. Her pretty face and big eyes are rich in quicksilver reactions as Mae corkscrews from belief to doubt and back, though the finish has a teasing ambivalence. There are some mediocre chases and a skeptical rogue genius (John Boyega) who hangs around being obscurely subversive (instead of Deep Throat’s big garage, he has long storage vaults). There is good work by Karen Gillan as Mae’s jealous mentor, Glenne Headley as her mother and, as her stricken dad, Bill Paxton (his sign-out role; he died in February).

The story could have benefited from the more elegant visual allure and sexiness of Gattaca, the 1997 fable about the dangers of biogenetics and scientific elitism. The Circle is, to use an old-tech term, something of a chalk talk. But as Hermione proved early in  Hogwarts classes, Watson is no piece of chalk.      

The Lost City of Z
He never knew Richard Nixon’s rhetorical phrase (State of the Union speech, 1970) “the lift of a driving dream,” but in the early 20th century Britain’s Lt. Col. Percy Fawcett found his way to live it. Bravely (and foolishly?) he led small expeditions into Bolivia’s Amazonian wilds, not to put more imperial pink on the maps, nor for gold or oil, but to find “the ultimate piece of the human puzzle.” A Victorian-bred racist, but no snob, Fawcett felt that steamy terra incognita and its “primitive” natives had truths to offer, wonders to unfold, even the fabled El Dorado which he called Zed (no, not the source of Peter Greene’s Zed in Pulp Fiction). After World War I combat, the aging Fawcett went back for another, fatalistic penetration of the forest primeval.

Director-writer James Gray tells the tale with rugged devotion in The Lost City of Z, helped by a strong if not wildly charismatic performance by Charlie Hunnam (and excellent Sienna Miller as his wife, bound by home and kids but no meek mouse). Robert Pattinson plays his heavily bearded, sometimes skeptical cohort. The film’s budget is stretched by crafty, traditional means, and there is a potent, increasingly nutty integrity in Hunnam’s portrayal. But I never quite felt the lift of the driving dream, neither the old exhilaration (Stewart Granger tracking past countless critters to a mountain domain of tall African warriors who do exotic jump-dancing, in King Solomon’s Mines), nor the old mythic fevers (Klaus Kinski as a feral Spanish lunatic, lost in the Peruvian wilderness of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God).   

While not dull, the film does tend to slog. Despite very rich, celluloid imagery by Darius Khondji and a strong score by Christopher Spelman, grand vistas and a do-or-die cast, there is a rummaging, archival aura. This dream is caught in the amber of another age’s geographic imagination, already plundered by past movies (remember Spencer Tracy as fearless Henry M. Stanley?). Lost City is a fine old Britisher at his club, beckoning us with “Listen, I have a wonderful story to tell. But first, allow me to light my pipe and describe my notes.”

SALAD (A List)
Fifteen Top Movies of Exotic Adventure (with year and director): The Nibelungen (Fritz Lang, 1924), The Thief of Bagdad (Raoul Walsh, 1924), King Kong (Cooper-Schoedsack, 1933), King Solomon’s Mines (Compton Bennett, 1950), The African Queen (John Huston, 1951), The Wages of Fear (H.-G. Clouzot, 1953), Robinson Crusoe (Luis Bunuel, 1954), The Hidden Fortress (Akira Kurosawa, 1958), Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962), Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972), Aguirre Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972), The Man Who Would Be King (John Huston, 1975), Romancing the Stone (Robert Zemeckis, 1984), Adventures of Baron Munchausen (Terry Gilliam, 1988), The Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles, 2004).  

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Temporarily back in Hollywood’s favor while making Touch of Evil in 1958 (and playing its fat-slob sheriff), Welles “decided to throw a party for all the little Hollywood grandees … to show that I still remembered my friends, Sam Goldwyn, Jack Warner and those people. And I was late, and I thought ‘I won’t take time to remove this terrible, enormous makeup that took forever to put on. When I came into my house, before I had a chance to explain that I had to get upstairs and take my makeup off, all these people came up (to me) and said, ‘Hi, Orson! Gee, you’re looking great!” (Welles to Peter Bogdanovich, This Is Orson Welles).  

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
When I first visited Rome the fabled Via Veneto seemed a little “off,” with its downhill curvature – it didn’t match my 1961 memory of La Dolce Vita. That’s because “in planting Cinecittá (studio’s) flag on the Veneto, Fellini also brought the Veneto to Cinecittá. To reproduce the street at the studio he gave up his profit share (and future wealth). His radiant replica was so level and straight that it cheated the truth, but it made the street immortal.” (From the Marcello Mastroianni/La Dolce Vita chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle).

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


A Watutsi prince (Siriaque) meets Deborah Kerr, Richard Carlson and Stewart Granger in King Solomon’s Mines (MGM, 1950; director Compton Bennett, cinematographer Robert Surtees).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Nosh 62: 'The Founder,' 'The Zookeeper's Wife'


By David Elliott
                                            

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

APPETIZER: Reviews of The Founder and The Zookeeper’s Wife

The Founder
America works hard, but hustles harder (when “we” elected hustle hog Donald Trump, that truth became history). In 1954 Ray Kroc was road-hustling milkshake mixers to diners and drive-ins, listening to Dale Carnegie inspiration records and, in his flat Midwestern voice, spieling fortune cookies (“increase supply, demand follows!”). Then he got a large order from distant San Bernardino, where the McDonald brothers (large, cheerful Mac and fussy control freak Dick) had opened a burger joint with clean, fast service and cheap, well-made food: 35 cents for a hamburger, fries and milkshake. Families welcomed McDonald’s into their California way of life, but it took a hustling salesman to turn it into an American icon.

According to The Founder, Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) has his Moses moment in San Berdoo, then his go-for-it smile becomes a golden arch over the nation (Dick designed the original, emblematic arches). Ray begins selling franchises, while the brothers keep quality control but never (on film) find a good lawyer. Ray pigs out on ambition, a real Super-sized Me, and a smart advisor prompts another epiphany: the real dough is not in wholesome burgers (two pickles each!) but control of the real estate below the outlets. Ray answers the old question “What profit a man if he should sell a billion burgers but lose his soul?” with “Great! Let’s sell another billion!” He suckers the brothers into finally selling out, and their very name is now his to brand on the world, even right near Red Square and the Vatican.

The movie greatly benefits from John Carroll Lynch as jolly Mac and Nick Offerman as original visionary Dick. Laura Dern is poorly used as Kroc’s first wife, homebody Ethel, but Linda Cardellini hustle-bustles as the sexy third wife, Joan, who rose to epic philanthropy. Above all, with a cold eye and fetching smile, Keaton gets his yummiest role since Birdman, sucking up the golden grease of success. If there is a dead rat of betrayal deep down in the fry oil, it doesn’t much bother Ray.

Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) and writer Robert Siegel (The Wrestler) have made a rather airbrushed movie, glowing with zippy nostalgia. The picture got hustled from the spotlight when the releasing company chose to open concurrently another film about a hustler, the inferior Gold. But The Founder, neatly boxed, is the real deal. If not the whole story, it’s a tasty one.

The Zookeeper’s Wife
The preview trailer leads with darling shots of Antonina Zabinski on a bike, followed by her prancing pal, a juvenile giraffe. The Zookeeper’s Wife gives us adorable animals right away, but then the date and place: Warsaw, Poland, summer of 1939. So we know it won’t go well for giraffes. Nor for Polish Jews, soon rammed into a hellish ghetto by the Nazis. It is only blocks away from the zoo run by lovely Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and her brave, stolid husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh).

What we’re not prepared for is seeing zoo critters shot for meat or sport by the Germans, the more exotic ones trucked away for “experiments.” Nor for Antonina, a sort of Polish Joan of Ark (Chastain’s accent is Slavic in a Casablanca way), comforting a Jewish girl just raped by soldiers, by offering as therapy pet her own beloved bunny. Nor for the weirdly staged scene of Antonina being virtually groped in public by a Nazi officer (Daniel Bruhl), while two huge buffalo mate behind them. Bruhl goes quickly from zoo lover to S.S. eugenics nut, hoping to revive an ancient breed of bison. He finally admits that “the war has turned” in January, 1945, as the Red Army encircles Warsaw (well, those buffalo were distracting).

The Zabinskis were real, not Disney. They lost most of their animals but savingly hid around 300 Jews, and deserve all the honors that came to them. But when director Niki Caro resorts to stock clichés while blithely equating ghetto Jews and zoo creatures, as if combining Shoah and We Bought a Zoo, we experience the squirm of unintended kitsch (even Mel Brooks steered clear of the Holocaust). As the raped girl, Shira Haas has a haunted face of “old” youth, capturing more of the nightmare than the entire rest of the cast.

SALAD (A List)
Twenty Ace Performances as Hustlers, Spielers, Biz-Dreamers:
Edward Arnold as Barney Glasgow (Come and Get It, 1936), Alec Guinness as Fagin (Oliver Twist, 1948), Orson Welles as Harry Lime (The Third Man, 1948), Vincent Price as James Reavis (The Baron of Arizona, 1950), Broderick Crawford as Augusto (Il Bidone, 1955), Eli Wallach as Sylvia Vaccaro (Baby Doll, 1955), Yul Brynner as Sergei (Anastasia, 1955), Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco (Sweet Smell of Success, 1957), Paul Newman as Ben Quick (The Long Hot Summer, 1958), Andy Griffith as Lonesome Rhodes (A Face in the Crowd, 1958), Burt Lancaster as Elmer (Elmer Gantry, 1960), Zero Mostel as Max Bialystock (The Producers, 1968), Bruce Dern as Jason Staebler (The King of Marvin Gardens, 1972), Richard Dreyfuss as Duddy (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, 1974), Jeff Bridges as Preston Tucker (Tucker: The Man and His Dream, 1988), John Turturro as Mac Vitelli (Mac, 1992), Richard Gere as Clifford Irving (The Hoax, 2006), Don Cheadle as Petey Greene (Talk to Me, 2007), Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodruff (Dallas Buyers Club, 2013) and Jennifer Lawrence as Joy (Joy, 2015).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Despite considerable progress on it, Citizen Welles chose to abandon Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as his first RKO project (1940). And yet, it “influenced the subject of Citizen Kane, its setting and its form … swampy and fetid, Kane’s estate might be the malarial outpost over which Kurtz presides (in Conrad’s novel). Leland tells Kane, as if he were Kurtz, to sail away to a desert island and lord it over the monkeys.” (Quote from Peter Conrad’s book Orson Welles: The Stories of His Life).

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Funny Face stretches its taffy plot across a gossamer frame of fantasy, and strikes modern taste as an ‘old’ musical of the color-vamp era. But for fans in 1957 it was less garish, less studio-rigged, less Broadway “bound” (both senses) than most big shows. They may be riveting, but we see the rivets in heavy efforts like Kiss Me Kate and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and the panting for Art in the famous Gene Kelly ballet sequences.” (From the Audrey Hepburn/Funny Face chapter in my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, yours from Amazon, Nook or Kindle).

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



On a barge, Audrey Hepburn is joined by furry friends while making Funny Face (Paramount Pictures 1957; director Stanley Donen, cinematographer Ray June).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Nosh 61: 'Julieta,' 'Personal Shopper' & More



By David Elliott
                                             

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


APPETIZER: Reviews of Julieta and Personal Shopper

Julieta
Pedro Almodóvar, directing his 21st feature, is again riding a feminine carousel. Julieta has Julieta doubled. The very attractive, middle-aging woman of Madrid is played with subtle verve of nerves by Emma Suárez. In her written (and flashbacked) memories her younger self is played by Adriana Ugarte as a sensitive blond bombshell who loves the Greek classics. Ugarte is probably the Spanish master’s best wow since Penélope Cruz. And then there is Julieta’s daughter Antia, played as child and teen by several engaging girls. And the flinty housekeeper acted by Rossy de Palma, Pedro’s Gothic gargoyle of Spanish pride (no man of La Mancha can stand against her).

Once again, los hombres are harem accessories. Pedro, famously gay, displays the buff appeal of Daniel Grao as Xoan, the stud fisherman (hints of Ulysses) who fathered Antia. On the side Xoan pleasures Ava (Inma Cuesta), a strong, sexy sculptress of Greco-macho nudes. Gentlemanly Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti) comforts the mature, often depressed Julieta. In el mundo de Pedro the males are on hand mainly to pay attention, cast some seed and pick up broken crockery. It’s the females, singly, in pairs, in triads, in generations, who cause and inhabit the Iberian weather of feelings. Soap opera? If so, closer to opera than soap.

Almodóvar compacted three short stories of Alice Munro, now Hispanicized (it was once planned in English for Meryl Streep). In this seamless narrative people still write letters and notes, and emotions find the flamenco cadence of Castilian speech. The axis, of course, is Julieta, who surrenders her teaching dream for motherhood. Her idyll is upended not only by Xoan but willful daughter Antia. No point in spelling this out, though “spoilers” mean little when a director makes each scene pregnant from the last, giving birth to the next. Hurt and guilt become Julieta’s new, Homeric sea, churned less by Catholicism than tides of desire and fidelity, though there is a holy trinity moment of young Julieta with her baby and her aging mother.

Buffs will relish the surrealism of a stag, running alongside a train, and doesn’t a suicidal passenger echo Luis Buñuel’s great actor Fernando Rey? In a Hitchcock overlay, the stars playing Julieta recall the two sides of Kim Novak in Vertigo, with Ugarte looking a lot like Novak’s “Madeleine.” Rich stuff, but less strategic than Almodóver’s fluency of moods and décor-in-depth (emphasis on red, blue and yellow). The crucial role of Antia could have used more development, but Julieta is Julieta. Having dreamed of ancient Greeks, she finds herself in a Spanish life suspended between tragedy and melodrama, consecrated to the compulsions of Pedro. In a word: Viva!

Personal Shopper
Kristen Stewart made a smart jump away from the Twilight Saga movies by playing a personal assistant in Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria (2014). It is less smart to go from the artistic to the arty, as Stewart and Assayas have done with Personal Shopper. The slender, elegant actress plays Maureen, the American scootering round Paris as “personal shopper” of clothing and jewelry for a celebrity fashion totem, a woman of almost Trumpean shallowness. Maureen is told to never wear the garments. Of course she does, covertly. On this flimsy hanger, Assayas suspends two vapid attempts at mystery.

The vaguely psychic Maureen sleuths the ghost of her twin brother, which leads to a spooky old house where (she notes) a phantom “vomits ectoplasm.” And Maureen is stalked by a man, often through creepy texting, which leads to a grisly murder (not hers). The pieces scarcely connect, unless you wish to be pious about auteurist intentions. Even when you thicken the gravy with Stewart half-nude (twice), a Victor Hugo séance, and Marlene Dietrich singing in Angst Deutsch, you’re still stuck with a meatloaf of murk. It took the mise-en-scène prize at Cannes, which means the elegant gravy can’t save the under-cooked meat.  

SALAD (A List)
The Ten Best Almodóver Movies (with stars and year):
Volver (con Penélope Cruz, Carmen Maura, 2006), All About My Mother (con Marisa Paredes, Cecilia Roth, Penélope Cruz, 1999), Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (con Carmen Maura, Antonio Banderas, Rossy de Palma, 1988), Talk to Her (con Javier Cámara, Roserio Flores, 2002), Julieta (con Emma Suárez, Adriana Ugarte, Daniel Grao, 2016), Broken Embraces (con Penélope Cruz, Lluis Homar, Blanca Portillo, 2009), Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (con Victoria Abril, Antonio Banderas, 1990). Live Flesh (con Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, Liberto Rabal, 1997), Law of Desire (con Carmen Maura, Antonio Banderas, 1987) and Kika (con Verónica Forqué, Peter Coyote, Victoria Abril, 1993).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Citizen Welles tried to diet his grand bulk in later years, but the gourmand in him was never silent. As when, lunching, he extolled the kiwi: “It’s the greatest fruit in the universe! But it’s ruined by all the French chefs who cut it up into thin slices. You cannot tell what it tastes like unless you eat it in bulk. Then it is marvelous, and it has the highest vitamin content of any fruit in the world.” (Orson Welles to Henry Jaglom, My Lunches With Orson.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
While not a flop, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was not the big  1948 hit its later legend implied: “Women largely ruled the box office and Treasure lacked wide appeal. Males mostly took it as an odd, exotic Western (swell bandits, not enough horses and gunplay). Ballyhoo included theater managers staging ‘treasure hunts’ for tickets, with fake gold bars on display under armed guard. One puff shot showed Bogart talking into the ear of a burro. Fortunately, the film was spared its ‘love song’ by Dick Manning and Buddy Kaye: ‘For you are the treasure of Sierra Madre / And your love is the gold that I tenderly hold’.” (From the Humphrey Bogart / Treasure of the Sierra Madre chapter in my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, yours from Amazon, Nook or Kindle).

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


Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) faces another colorful crisis in Volver (El Deseo/ Sony Pictures Classics, 2006; director Pedro Almodóver, cinematographer Ester García).

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Friday, April 14, 2017

Nosh 60: 'Neruda' & More


By David Elliott


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


APPETIZER: Review of Neruda
Quite recently (see Nosh 49 below) Chile’s brilliant director Pablo Larraín made Jackie. He didn’t remove Jacqueline Kennedy from her fabled and tragic pedestal as a presidential widow. Instead, with Natalie Portman at her best, he put a living woman on  the pedestal, full of personal fury and anguished perplexity.

With more playfulness, and with a Latin flair for magical myth, Larraín revamps our sense of a great poet in Neruda. Back in 1994 Il Postino: The Postman starred Philippe Noiret as a wry, sage Neruda and Massimo Troisi as the simple Italian postman who falls in love with Neruda’s work. The endearing film sparked a big revival for Neruda’s love poems which, along with his radiant odes to basic and simple things, are the foundation of his popularity. But he was also a great political poet. True, as a devout Marxist he wrote some rhetorical rubbish, Stalinist boilerplate. But Neruda’s best political works, including most of the Canto General, have kept his name and verse sacred to idealists of the Left.

Larraín’s Neruda, contrived with writer Guillermo Calderón, is a pudgy peacock, a romantic egotist. It’s 1948, and Neruda is a leading Communist senator in Chile, The regime is falling into line with the new CIA’s Cold War thinking (the President is played by Alfredo Castro, wonderful as the insane criminal hooked on Saturday Night Fever in Larraín’s Tony Manero). Neruda goes into rather flamboyant hiding, then escapes over the mountains to Argentina. That really happened, but in Larraín’s take Neruda has a pursuing nemesis: the government’s fierce young agent Oscar.

He is played by Gael García Bernal, superb in Larraín’s political docu-drama No. Oscar is (or claims to be) the bastard son of a prostitute and a famous police chief. García Bernal makes his proven, zestful charisma neurotically potent, and seems to merge Inspector Clouseau with Jean-Louis Trintignant’s robotic Italian fascist in  The Conformist.  

A movie that salutes Neruda by opening with him urinating while denouncing his nearby, fellow senators as Yanqui stooges, and which has him fleeing from his lover’s most tender offer, to get drunk in a bordello, is not polishing a statue. Larraín has trifurcated Neruda: a brilliant troubadour of the dispossessed, a narcissist constructing his legend, and a sly, conspiratorial jester whose “act” thrills even Oscar. We begin to see Oscar as a bravura facet of Neruda’s grand, Whitman-wide imagination, as the guilty noir shadow leaking from Chile’s darkness, chasing Neruda’s flight to solar fame and glory.

The ending, in the high Andean snow, is as poetically vivid as Warren Beatty’s snowy exit in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. With splendid help from García Bernal and, as Neruda, Luis Ghecco (best known for comedy), and Delia del Carril as Neruda’s proud, artistic lover, and also Grieg and other composers, Larraín has fashioned a terrific movie. His vision of postwar Latin America (using ace imagery, urban and rural, by Sergio Armstrong) is irresistible. If you pay attention to credits, you may notice that the film’s “prop master” is Salvador Allende – the name of Neruda’s Marxist friend and president, martyred in 1973 by a CIA coup.

SALAD (A List)
A Dozen Dramatic Movies About Real Writers (star, subject, year): Oscar Wilde (Robert Morley as Wilde, 1960), The Belle of Amherst (Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson, 1976), Tales of Ordinary Madness (Ben Gazzara as Serking/Charles Bukowski, 1981), Dreamchild (Ian Holm as Lewis Carroll, 1985), My Left Foot (Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown, 1989), An Angel at My Table (Kerry Fox as Janet Frame, 1990), Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (Jennifer Jason-Leigh as Dorothy Parker, 1994), Before Night Falls (Javier Bardem as Reinaldo Arenas, 2000), Adaptation (Nicolas Cage as Charlie Kaufman, 2002), Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, 2005), Bright Star (Ben Whishaw as John Keats, 2008) and Trumbo (Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo, 2015).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Orson Welles is seldom thought of as an intimate entertainer, more like a master of the powerful effect. But his most popular success was in radio, where he “wanted to eliminate the ‘impersonal’ quality of most programs, which treated the listener like an eavesdropper. The radio, he recognized, was an intimate piece of living room furniture, and as a result the ‘invisible audience should never be considered collectively, but individually.’ This, incidentally, was an idea that FDR had understood better than any politician of his era.” (From James Naremore’s The Magic World of Orson Welles.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
In a little country restaurant, in Alice Adams, Katharine Hepburn’s performance as Alice “pressures Pauline Kael’s remark that Hepburn ‘has always been too individualistic, too singular for common emotions.’ Here she is giving fairly common emotions an uncommonly stylish clarity. Words arrive emotionally liquid, tempo ebbs and flows, candor teases out truth. It’s a lesson in ‘good breeding’ beyond the social game.” (From the Katharine Hepburn/Alice Adams chapter in my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, from Amazon, Nook or Kindle).

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


Pernell Roberts (left) and Randolph Scott found a Western pinnacle in Ride Lonesome (Columbia/Ranown 1959; director Budd Boetticher, cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr.).

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Friday, April 7, 2017

Nosh 59: 'The Red Turtle,' 'Land of Mine' & More


By David Elliott

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


APPETIZER: Reviews of The Red Turtle and Land of Mine

The Red Turtle
It opens with immense ocean waves, surging. You might lift your chin above the water, even though you’re in a dry theater seat. A bobbing head is seen – a drowning sailor, of course. He is swept to an island – one without people, of course. He must survive, of course. But dangerous tests of endurance, one involving a hidden pool and huge rocks, are so beautiful that it feels like Robinson Crusoe illustrated by Georgia O’Keefe in a Zen spell.   

The Red Turtle, almost wordless, seems to raft upon screen, driven by sea and sky and tropical vegetation. Its saturated washes of light and shadow are almost abstracted, and the sensuality has a primal grip. The sailor meets a grand turtle, much less a man Friday than a feminine Forever. Instead of the specific, amusing humanity of Tom Hanks in Cast Away, there is a purified aura of archetype, as if Adam the sailor is floating in the sea of Eve.

This is a Studio Ghibli production, yet not from Japan. Many French animators worked on  Michael Dudok de Wit's first feature. Hasao Miyazaki, Ghibli's famous master, saw animated shorts by the Dutchman and said if they ever needed a foreign director, it would be De Wit. His partner, the late Isao Takahata, went to Paris to produce. They result is a hybrid, like Lautrec's absorption of Japanese prints. The binding force is love of nature (plus a little cuteness: four perky sand crabs).
 
The Black Stallion loses a little magic when the boy and horse are rescued from the enchanting island (Mickey Rooney, Teri Garr and a race provide fine compensation). This story loses some of its primal purity by reaching for Jungian, magical-realist symbolism. But there is always the epic horizon, and the crimson shell of the sea beast has a similar curve of poetry. As a Euro-Ghibli vision, The Red Turtle makes Ninja turtles seem like very tame terrapins.      

Land of Mine
Using a feeble word-play title for a horrific story, Land of Mine is a film about captive German soldiers, forced to clear land mines from Danish beaches in 1945. If these were S.S. men and hardened brutes, we’d say: tough luck. But these 14 “Krauts” are scared boys drafted into the Wehrmacht at war’s end. When you see these adolescent children sifting the sands with pitiful tools and no protection, it is a harsh test of Danish morality, one from which even Soren Kierkegaard might have flinched.

Denmark’s WWII was almost a picnic next to Poland’s or Russia’s, but we can understand the cynical bitterness of Sgt. Rasmussen (Roland Meller), a Dane working for English officers even more hardened than himself. The boys try to man-up, though they know the mission has a steep slope of destruction. Rasmussen comes to see them not as Nazi guilt ciphers (they never express a political idea) but as individuals bound by fear. They deserve the food that he steals from military supplies, and his growing sympathy. Tagging along are Rasmussen’s dog and a neighboring little girl.

Land of Mine doesn’t ratchet fear quite like  Ten Seconds to Hell (1959), in which Jack Palance leads a POW team in defusing unexploded bombs (I sweated blood for that one). While director Martin Zandvliet isn’t much of a stylist, the boys facing terrible pressures are touchingly vulnerable. At film’s end we learn that of the two thousand war prisoners made to de-mine Denmark, many were juvenile. About half were killed or maimed in 1945, which Germans call Year Zero.

SALAD (A List)
Twelve Good End-of-WWII Films (nation, year, director):
Rome Open City (Italy, 1945, Roberto Rossellini), The Best Years of Our Lives (US, 1946, William Wyler), Germany Year Zero (Italy-Germany, 1948, Rossellini), The Search (US-Germany, 1948, Fred Zinnemann), Decision Before Dawn (US-Germany, 1951, Anatole Litvak), The Last Ten Days (Germany, 1955, G.W. Pabst), The Burmese Harp (Japan-Burma, 1956, Kon Ichikawa), Ten Seconds to Hell (US, 1959, Robert Aldrich), The Bridge (Germany, 1959, Bernhard Wicki), The Truce (Italy, 1997, Francesco Rosi), The White Countess (Britain-China, 2005, James Ivory) and The Sun (Russia-Japan, 2005, Alexander Sokurov).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Citizen Welles disliked the “type” for which he was often cast: “Many of the big characters I’ve played are various forms of Faust, and I am against every form of Faust, because I believe it’s impossible for a man to be great without admitting that there’s something greater than himself, whether it’s the law, or God, or egotism … (but) in playing Faust, I want to be just and loyal to him, to give him the best of myself and the best arguments that I can find for him … our world is Faustian.” (Welles to Peter Bogdanovich, in This Is Orson Welles.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“While in this book we lose the rapid, sensual engulfment of actually viewing (the movies are all out on disc), we experience what happens more discerningly. No voice can ‘say it all’ about films, so I have recruited other lovers of these movies and I hope the quotations have a fugal effect (‘A fugue has need of all its voices’ – Aldous Huxley).” (From the Intro to 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.


Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, dandy in The Maltese Falcon (Warner Bros. 1941; director John Huston, cinematographer Arthur Edeson).



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