Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Nosh 166: 'Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles,' 'Honeyland,' & More

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

APPETIZER (Reviews: Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles and Honeyland)

For those who don’t need to have their brain swacked at the mall by Hustlers or It Chapter Two



Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles 
Here is an odd movie, one befitting the greatest surreal director, Luis Buñuel. Salvador Simó has made an animated salute to the 1932 making of Buñuel’s once scandalous, now obscure Tierra Sin Pan (Land Without Bread). Using a little budget, after his anarchist friend Ramón Acín won the lottery (Buñuel spent much of it on a Fiat touring car for the filming), Tierra imitated and slightly spoofed the vogue for “ethnographic” documentaries about exotic places. Unemployed after his MGM-paid visit to Hollywood, and stung by falling out with Salvador Dalí after their scandalous Un Chien Andalou and even more subversive L’Age d’Or, Buñuel’s exotic place was in his homeland: Spain’s remote, western Las Hurdes region of medieval poverty and superstition, an outback ripe for the coming of fascism. The main fiesta involved caballeros pulling the heads off live roosters. A key local income was the state stipend for taking in poor orphans (soon multiplied by the Civil War – Franco’s regime would ban Tierra Sin Pan).

The animation is elegantly simple and austere, with only a few flourishes (as in the image above). No need to hype the subject graphically, given the still disturbing clips inserted from Tierra. Simó’s team comes through, as did Buñuel’s little band (which included one assistant on assignment from … Vogue!). Did Buñuel, prompted by the Marian idolatry of villagers, really have erotic dreams of the Virgin as the one cartooned here? His compassion, notably for a sick girl, is shown touchingly. He also “improvised” certain incidents, including a chicken’s exit and probably a mountain goat’s. He was young, angry and whipped along by his muse, and so: a surreal documentary (he was Werner Herzog’s soul father). This is a moving tribute,  too close to his spirit and the harsh themes to be just a cinephile valentine. It hops along the gears of creativity with sprightly assurance.  

Buñuel is, like surrealism, a past-century sensation, and yet his best movies (El, Viridiana, Los Olvidados, Robinson Crusoe, Nazarin, Tristana, Exterminating Angel, Belle de Jour) remain vitally entertaining and almost timeless (for purity of Buñuel read his memoir My Last Sigh). He compared movie-viewing to both hypnosis and rape, and while this moving and even charming postscript film avoids both of those conditions, it invades our imagination compellingly. Turtles and Tierra (which can be found on You Tube) would make quite a double video – those title turtles refer to the archaic stone-shelled houses of the villagers.



Honeyland
We know bees are in trouble. None of us know it like Hatidze Muratova, a rustic beekeeper in Macedonia, north of Greece. In the docu-dramatic Honeyland, the spindly, sunbaked (she could be 40 or 55) Hatidze crops honeycombs of wild or semi-tamed bees. She admires their dense social labor and, ecologically astute, always leaves them at least half the golden honey (sharing her half with her old, fading mother). Honey and no dentistry have left spinster Hatidze’s teeth like a decimated Stonehenge. Directors Tamara Koterska and Ljubomir Stefanov relish her tough spirit, stoical kindness and Ma Joad femininity. At the market down in town she buys modern hair dye – chestnut brown – and says “Everyone likes to look nice, Mom, even me.”

Not nice are new, locust-like neighbors who spill from their big truck. They have nearly feral kids and some skinny cattle. The father is a crude scrounger who ignores Hatidze’s advice, his greed ravaging his hives and even spoiling hers. This is less primal capitalism than a Hobbesian state of semi-nomadic abuse. After helping some of the exploited and bee-stung children, Hatidze steels herself for sheer survival. This curious movie’s best value is the fertile buzz of the hives, the rough Balkan landscape, and hard-scrabble Hatidze staring up at the stars or the contrails of planes: aliens from a less rooted world.  

SALAD (A List)
Remarkable Dramatic Movies About Poverty
In order of arrival, with year and director:
                  The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford 1940), The Bicycle Thief (Vittorio de Sica 1948), The Little Flowers of St. Francis (Roberto Rossellini 1950), Los Olvidados (Luis Buñuel 1950), The Lower Depths (Akira Kurosawa 1957), Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini 1957), The Exiles (Kent Mackenzie 1961), A Taste of Honey (Tony Richardson 1961), Hunger (Henning Carlsen 1966), Mouchette (Robert Bresson 1967), Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett 1978), Ironweed (Hector Babenco 1987), City of Joy (Roland Joffé 1992), Always Outnumbered Always Outgunned (Michael Apted 1998), Rosetta (Dardenne Bros. 1999), The Pursuit of Happyness (Gabriele Muccino 2006), Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino 2010), Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik 2010).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Orson Welles had a yarn for any assistant who came up with multiple excuses for not doing something:  “(Austrian Emperor) Franz Joseph is riding in his carriage through this tiny provincial town, plumes and all. The trembling mayor sits next to him and says, ‘Your Imperial Highness, I apologize to you in the profoundest terms for the fact that the bells are not ringing in the steeple. There are three reasons. First, there are no bells in the steeple …’ And Franz Joseph interrupts him with, ‘Please don’t tell me the other two reasons.’ Now, that’s a good answer for every assistant director in the world, working for you in any capacity.” (OW to chum and director Henry Jaglom in My Lunches with Orson.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Who should better dream than a down-and-outer?
After old Howard’s prospecting pitch in the Tampico flophouse in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Fred C. Dobbs “rolls over on his cot, with a sneer: ‘Think I’ll go to sleep and dream about piles of gold getting bigger, and bigger and bigger.’ At daybreak he will wake up inside the dream, hooked, and soon tells Curtin that ‘gold don’t carry any curse with it. It all depends on whether the guy who finds it is the right guy.” The dream becomes, of course, his nightmare. (Quote from the Bogart/Treasure chapter in 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.



After a drinking night, uprooted Native American men head “home” through L.A.’s Bunker Hill tunnel in The Exiles (independent release 1961; director-writer Kent Mackenzie).
For previous Noshes, scroll below.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Nosh 165: 'Angel Has Fallen', 'The Peanut Butter Falcon' and More


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

APPETIZER (Reviews: Angel Has Fallen and The Peanut Butter Falcon)

Welcome, plex rats, to the last dog days of summer:



Angel Has Fallen
The really hard guys are stuck in the Petrified Forest. The Rock is a grinning wind-up toy. Steven Seagal looks like a sofa stuffed with Velveeta. Sly Stallone is in the last gasp of his marathon (coming soon: Rambo: Last Blood). Vin Diesel is more bald than ballistic. Jason Stathem is buff but dull. Bruce Willis looks baked. Jackie Chan is a Comic-Con collectible. Liam Neeson lumbers his bulk as Senior Avenger and Tom Cruise is the Fort Knox of Botox. Forget Norris (now 79), Van Damme (a Belgian waffle) and Lundgren (down to Sharknado 5). Their manly master, dear ol’ Charlie Brontosaurus (Bronson), went into the tar pit long ago.

But here comes – tote that gut! – haggard Gerard Butler as Secret Service agent Mike Banning. Angel Has Fallen is Butler’s third blast belch in the medium-costing (Bulgarian locations) but sturdy-grossing Fallen franchise, an ammo dump wired to blow. For director Ric Roman Waugh, five writers honed the alpha-dodo plot. An attack by feral bat drones puts Banning’s beloved President Morgan Freeman in a coma (did Freeman insist?). Falsely accused of treason, Banning burns for patriotic payback despite spinal injuries and an overall AARP aura. He goes on the lam, chased by the deluded feds and also black-op villains led by sadistic war buddy Wade (Danny Huston). He is almost instantly ambushed by “militia” yokels, launching a truck chase that clearly was edited in a Cuisinart.

If you have spent quality time dumpster diving into these body bags you know the rewards: 1. stunts, 2. blowouts, 3. goons frantic to die, 4. veteran actors trying to grab their checks with verve. Butler is just meatloaf on a mission, but Huston channels his father John’s famous ham-rogue inflections into the mayhem. Jada Pinkett Smith is a fierce agent. Piper Perabo is Mrs. Banning, whose wee babe appears truly terrified. Tim Blake Nelson is a mini-Mnuchin (Trump’s dorky Secretary of the Treasury) as the swinish V.P. of Freeman’s noble President. The king of the mountain, literally, is Nick Nolte as Banning’s dad, a raging Viet-vet hairball. His forest refuge, a Bunker Hill of senile libertarian lunacy, blows up real good. The repartee has the special, gastric growl of a bazooka digesting barbed wire. Butler: “You smell like gunpowder.” Huston: “Yeah, you know you love it.”



The Peanut Butter Falcon
Come git yer grub! Served fresh (well, familiar) at the Dixie Bait Snack Café: gators, herons, a big dawg, crab cages, a blind preacher, a goofy baptism, banjo music, the Salt Water Redneck (retired wrestler) and Bubba’s road store where “yer Ding Dongs are two-dollar-a-peece.” The beef entrée is Shia LaBeouf, who plays tough hick Tyler as lookin’ for redemption after a bad mistake – perhaps an echo bounce off LaBeouf’s own legal etc. troubles. Tyler, surly but then sensitive, bonds with a young Downs syndrome guy who ran away from being the mascot of a retirement home. Zak is played by pudgy, cuddly Zack Gottsagen. He wants to swim and drink and shoot and rassle. He gets there as Tyler’s “bro-dog,” while being pursued by Dakota Johnson as a darlin’ caregiver with moon pie eyes. Here, ground zero, is the quicksand of the empathy swamp.

It’s The Peanut Butter Falcon, never (please) to be confused with The Maltese Falcon. Director-writers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz graduated summa cum sorghum from the Forrest Gump Academy. There is a raft of freedom and a mention of Mark Twain, so naturally a blurb has declared the movie “Twainesque.” Make that Clemensized, fit not for a book club but a Hee-Haw reunion. Amid vistas of coastal North Carolina the cast sweats buckets: John Hawkes as a crabby crabber, Thomas Haden Church as the ex-wrestler, and Bruce Dern in one of his surefire lightning strikes as a codger who aids Zak’s escape. Dern, having a rich revival in small roles (see Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood), gleefully rips off some vintage cuckoo’s nest from his ole bud Jack Nicholson. Slurp it up good, and don’t fur-git to spit. Me, I’m gonna hang at the bait bar and suck worms.   

SALAD (A List)
Sixteen Ripe Ones from the Country South
With main star, director and year:
The Apostle (Robert Duvall, also directed, 1997), Baby Doll (Carroll Baker, Elia Kazan, 1955), Cross Creek (Mary Steenburgen, Martin Ritt, 1993), Deliverance (Jon Voight, John Boorman 1972), The Fugitive Kind (Marlon Brando, Sidney Lumet, 1960), Intruder in the Dust (Juano Hernandez, Clarence Brown, 1949), The Long Hot Summer (Paul Newman, Martin Ritt, 1958), The Member of the Wedding (Julie Harris, Fred Zinnemann, 1952), Mud (Matthew McConaughey, Jeff Nichols, 2012), The Reivers (Steve McQueen, Mark Rydell, 1969), Sounder (Cicely Tyson, Martin Ritt, 1972), The Southerner (Zachary Scott, Jean Renoir, 1945), The Strange One (Ben Gazzara, Jack Garfein, 1957), Thieves Like Us (Shelley Duvall, Robert Altman, 1974), Wind Across the Everglades (Christopher Plummer, Nicholas Ray, 1958) and Wise Blood (Brad Dourif, John Huston, 1979).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
In 1940, instinctive showman Orson Welles rapidly pared down Herman Mankiewicz’s bulging script for American, forging Citizen Kane. For example, he “deleted the scene of young Charles crying on the train and in its place used a single shot of his sled covered in snow, while the hollow wail of the whistle on the train, carrying the boy away, can be heard in the distance. Welles illustrated the boy’s loneliness, reinforced the importance of Rosebud in the story (without giving away the secret – the word on the sled is obscured by snow), and set up the chain of scenes that followed.” Magic time! (Quote from Harlan Lebo’s Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey.)

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



Fallen pastor T. Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton), reduced to boozing tour guidance in Mexico, faces the snarly hell of Miss Fellowes (Grayson Hall) in The Night of the Iguana (MGM 1964; director John Huston, d.p. Gabriel Figueroa).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.




Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Nosh 164: 'Where'd You Go, Bernadette' & More

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

APPETIZER (Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette)
Note: Nosh 165 will appear on Friday, Sept. 6.



Where’d You Go, Bernadette
“The world is too much with us,” wrote Wordsworth, which is certainly true for Bernadette Fox, Seattle wife and mom in Where’d You Go, Bernadette. She is also too much for many people, being a control-freaky compulsive and a temperamental loner. Her obsession after four miscarriages is brainy teen daughter Bee, recently accepted at a prep school. Bee’s departure would leave mom more solo than ever, as her loving but heavily distracted husband Elgin is a Microsoft wiz. Elgin, though acted by very engaging Billy Crudup, seems a little macrosoft mentally. He reveals a new wonder ap that, when stuck to the forehead, can read your thoughts, not realizing (to giddy applause) that the cute little thing is a perfect gift for spooks, interrogators and brainwashers.

Bernadette, not always likeable, is the motor of this impish, well-designed comedy, and Cate Blanchett is inspired casting. With her hawk gaze and instant aura of authority, and an adopted American accent supported by her Aussie-Brit rhythmic fluency, Blanchett gives us a singular woman. She makes the backstory buzz: Bernadette the MacArthur “genius grant” winner, then an architectural visionary whose eco-smart design sets a bold new standard, until it is destroyed by a Trumpy vulgarian. Now she’s a martyr to motherhood, picks snarky fights with a neighbor (Kristen Wiig), and lives neurotically in a dumpy Victorian home. It would be a rank spoiler to reveal how she breaks out, though Laurence Fishburne (as her architectural mentor) gives the best advice: get back to serious, creative work.

Director Richard Linklater and his writers eliminated some bits of Maria Semple’s novel (such as Bernadette’s agoraphobia, and an office sex scandal). They have made a screwball comedy with zippy modern themes. At moments it feels as if The Fountainhead is wrestling with Nothing Sacred. Some of the family tensions are facile, some Seattle stuff is a tangent of Portlandia, but the use of Antarctica (yep, that’s right) is quite a capper. In a remote scientists’s lounge, amid epic white vistas, the signature cocktail is the “pink penguin.” This goofy but not airheaded movie hardly tops Linklater’s remarkable career, but it is a fine showcase for Blanchett, all spark and spit (hauling pieces of Blanche Du Bois through Woody Allen’s fragile Blue Jasmine, she was riding a streetcar named Derivation).  In the fine cast Emma Nelson is an excellent Bee, but Blanchett is in sure command. As her talent joins her brain for a true feminist revival, hoist a pink penguin.  

SALAD (A List)
Richard Linklater’s Dozen Best
By my taste, with main star and year:
1. Before Sunrise (Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke 1995), 2. Before Sunset (Delpy/Hawke 2004), 3. Dazed and Confused (Matthew McConaughey 1993), 4. Boyhood (Ellar Coltrane 2014), 5. Me and Orson Welles (Christian McKay 2008), 6. School of Rock (Jack Black 2003), 7. Before Midnight (Delpy/Hawke 2013), 8. Slacker  (ensemble 1990), 9. The Newton Boys (Matthew McConaughey 1998), 10. Bernie (Jack Black 2011), 11. Where’d You Go, Bernadette (Cate Blanchett 2019), 12. Bad News Bears (Billy Bob Thornton 2005). Blithe experiment: Waking Life (animated ensemble, 2001).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
For his farce Too Much Johnson in 1938, Orson Welles chose to make a silent slapstick film for insertion into the stage action, flirting with a medium he would soon command. The stock was easily flammable nitrate, and colleague John Berry recalled that “one time the film caught fire. What I remember most remarkably is me running with the projector in my hand, burning, trying to get out the door into the hallway, and John Houseman racing for the door at the same time – so we had one of those comic who-gets-out-first moments … While Orson, with absolutely no concern whatsoever, was back inside, standing and looking at some piece of film in his hand, smoking his pipe.” (Quote from Patrick McGilligan’s Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“Stars often define their context. Buster Keaton rules any comical space he enters, and Kim Novak fulfills the Golden Gate in Vertigo. Stars also surprise, like Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi, giving depth to campy Ed Wood. They can even invade sleep, as in Mac, when John Turturro is startled from his nap by Burt Lancaster on TV in From Here to Eternity. Eyes widening, Mac declares ‘Get him, Burt! Get that Fatso! That’s Burt, Burt Lancaster!’ – and then smiles back into slumber.” (From the Introduction in 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.



As Bela Lugosi, Martin Landau (in white coat) becomes the crazed soul of pulp-camp cinema in Ed Wood, and won an Oscar for it (Buena Vista Pictures 1994; director Tim Burton, d.p. Stefan Czapsky).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Nosh 163: 'Them That Follow,' 'Maiden' & More

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

APPETIZER (Reviews: Them That Follow and Maiden)



Them That Follow
Movie heaven and hell have had many pastors, prophets, priests and preachers (see list below).  Into their ranks comes Lemuel, the Appalachian soul shepherd and snake diviner in Them That Follow. His charismatic spirit comes from actor Walton Goggins. After a little role in Robert Duvall’s The Apostle (1997), the scrawny Alabaman graduated to stellar TV parts in Justified and Vice Principals. There’s something very ’70s about Goggins, both 1870s and 1970s. With his high forehead, laser gaze, blazing grin and slicing voice, he’s like a bantam digest of Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern and Warren Oates in their yeasty young primes.

Lemuel’s tiny flock lives in a rural outback (lovely in nature, a slum with people). His church is a crude, wooden crib of purified fanaticism with a cold neon cross for greeting. He is very sincerely nuts, loving his flock but insisting that handling poisonous snakes is the true test of faith. His chief follower, Hope, is played with demento devotion by fine British actor Olivia Colman (The Favourite, The Night Manager). With loving lunacy she views her snake-bit son swelling and moaning for a long, hard time (over a hundred preachers of this small, fanged faith are thought to have died from venom). Writer-directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage do not cartoon the rubes. Lemuel and Hope are often savvy and caring, but soaked in scriptural notions (Mark 16:18: “They shall take up serpents”) that includes sadistic faith healing. They imagine that Old Satan prefers to hook and torment us through slithering, primeval critters who are pure instinct.  

Earthy, rooted, its tensions coiling and rattling, the movie also employs the familiar soaper elements of a teen pregnancy crisis. Still, the young players (Thomas Mann, Kaitlyn Dever, Lewis Pullman, especially Alice Englert as Lemuel’s confused daughter) approach the level of Goggins and Colman. None of this seems very commercial. The last director to reap serious profit from religious fervor plus snakes was Cecil B. DeMille, at hunky pharaoh Yul Brynner’s  palace in The Ten Commandments. Movingly intimate, Them That Follow blends the chills of the hissing pulp horror Ssssssss with the mad-preacher fevers of John Huston’s Wise Blood.  The main taste is venomized moonshine, but there is also love in the brew.  



Maiden
“The ocean is always trying to kill you,” says Tracy Edwards in Maiden, sounding a dire note soon submerged but not tamed in the vivid nautical documentary by Alex Holmes (Dunkirk, House of Saddam). Anxiety often leaps like dolphins, but here’s the deal: first-time skipper Edwards, 24, and her brave crew of 12 women became the first females to compete in the 33,000-mile Whitbread Round the World Race. Though not winning, the Maiden performed high in its size class and led on two legs of the long route, including the viciously cold, risky voyage from Uruguay past Antarctica to Australia. Edwards lost her dad at 10, then endured an alcoholic stepfather. The angry, hurt teen saved herself by sailing. After being an unhappy cook on very masculine vessels, Edwards found a battered, 58-foot boat and fixed it with her chosen crew of “girls,” who all became exceptionally skillful sea-mates. Principal financing came from sporty King Hussein of Jordan, ruler of a sea-less desert realm who sponsored the ocean trip through … Jordanian Royal Air! After the crew’s first mate bailed during the trials, Edwards skippered and navigated for 167 days at sea.

In this macho-marine world, scoffers included a plum-voiced sailing expert who called  the Maiden a “tin of tarts” (decades later, he admits that the women proved themselves “as men” – give this ass the Commodore Vanderbilt Regatta Snob Award for 1910). Vintage, almost Impressionist footage of the race joins crisp modern interviews of the now middle-aged, engagingly articulate “salts.” The late, seafaring actor Sterling Hayden would have loved this movie, and the fact that five years ago Edwards, now an innovative educator, found the old Maiden rotting in a dock. She uses the restored craft to train young women, including her own grown daughter.  

(Missed my best recent review? Check out below my eager comments on Tarantino's Once Upon at Time ... in Hollywood. Nosh 161 on Aug. 2).    

SALAD (A List)
Excellent Portraits of Priests and Preachers
Burt Lancaster as Elmer Gantry (Elmer Gantry 1960), Robert Duvall as Sonny Dewey (The Apostle 1997), Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell (Night of the Hunter 1955), Pierre Fresnay as Vincent de Paul (Monsieur Vincent 19478), Walton Goggins as Lemuel (That That Follow 2019), W.G. Fay as Father Tom (Odd Man Out 1947), Claude Laydu as the young priest (Diary of a Country Priest 1951), Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes (Wise Blood 1979), Peter Sellers as Rev. Smallwood (Heavens Above! 1963), Raul Julia as Oscar Romero (Romero 1989), Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan (Boys Town 1938), Montgomery Clift as Father Logan (I Confess 1953) and Robert Morley as Rev. Sayer (The African Queen 1951). 

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Orson is away this week, busily planning Citizen Trump. It stars John Goodman and a shrill cockatoo trapped at Mar a Lago.

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
As AIDS-denying, then bravely afflicted Ron Woodruff in Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey lifted his career to major drama and an Oscar, joining such depicters  of the afflicted as Javier  Bardem, The Sea Inside; Nicolas Cage, Leaving Las Vegas; Julie Christie, Afterglow; Daniel Day-Lewis, My Left Foot; Patty Duke, The Miracle Worker; Colin Firth, The King’s Speech; John Hawkes, The Sessions; John Hurt, The Elephant Man; Jessica Lange, Frances; Charles Laughton, The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Peter Mullen, My Name is Joe; Joaquin Phoenix, The Master, and Billy Bob Thornton, Sling Blade. (From the McConaughey/Dallas Buyers Club chapter in 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.



Despite his brimstone temper, Sonny Dewey (Robert Duvall) is Gospel-driven in The Apostle (October Films 1997; director Robert Duvall, d.p. Barry Markowitz).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Nosh 162: 'Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw' & 'Wild Rose'

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

APPETIZER (Reviews: Fast & Furious Presents Hobbs & Shaw, and Wild Rose)



Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw
Every dweeb who haunts a Comic-Con must love a franchise film title that includes two ampersands. In that spirit, & with only hit-&-run acquaintance with the Fast & Furious lineage, I offer this dazed analysis. F&FP: H&S is a multi-pecs multiplexer, a CGI cotillion of effects and killings starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Jason “The Stubble” Statham and Idris “The Glare” Elba. What, you were expecting Paul “The Panic” Giamatti, Timothy “The Chin” Spall and Danny “The Face” Trejo? That’s another franchise (and probably more fun).

“I’m what you call an ice-cold can of whip-ass,” says Johnson as Hobbs, snarking a goon before crushing him like a can. He teams with ass-whip buddy and rival Shaw (Stathem), seeking to stop a global conspiracy to convert humanity into futurist cyborgs by, first, killing most of us with a terror-lab virus. On a time-release basis it’s already inside fearless Brit agent Hattie (Vanessa Kirby, previously Princess Margaret in The Crown). She weighs about 107 but can whup big male butt like a slithery sidewinder of  mayhem. She is a fine bonus. Mostly director David Leitch is grunting the $200 million budget across a vast terrain of what-the-hell madness, smashing through London, L.A., Moscow. He judo flips from gray, nuked-out Chernobyl to Hobbs’s lovely birth turf Samoa, where the natives run a huge car-upgrade garage (serving the posh Guam market?). Hobbs’s super-sized mom is like a beached Disney toon of Bloody Mary in South Pacific (Bloody Marys would really help us survive this summer ride). 

Jerking from climax to climax on tiny vapor trails of plot, rife with squelchers featuring the word “balls,” this man-cave meatloaf pile is too exhausting to be exhilarating. There is a whopping, silly-fun duel between an evil helicopter and five trucks. Stathem makes a sly nod to his much better 2003 hit The Italian Job. Hattie is saved, but the last look on Kirby’s face says thank God this job is over. I felt sorry for the gifted Elba, grinding out his crazed, robotic villain. We get, within living memory of the Holocaust, the line “genocide shmenocide.” Hip to self-parody, less hip to moviemaking, this show is big & loud & long & dumb & … enough.


Wild Rose
After you Walk the Line and, craving some Tender Mercies, give your Crazy Heart to Country Rose, and then lose Your Cheatin’ Heart to W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, how much country twang on screen do you need? Trouble is, you will have missed the three best: Nashville, Pay Day and Coal Miner’s Daughter. Add now a fourth: Wild Rose, which is from … Scotland. That last oddity makes perfect sense when you watch Jessie Buckley’s star performance as Rose-Lynn. Buckley, 29, is Irish and not a novice. She graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, came second in a national music contest, had sizeable roles in the TV dramas Chernobyl and The Woman in White and now has five movies finished or in prep. But if you first discover her in this star-is-born film, it’s a swell way to start.

Rose-Lynn (“Rose”) gets out of prison (bum rap for drug possession). She has an alley-cat aura and a tracking collar “tag” on one ankle. A fast-chug drinker, she has been the musical magnet at a Glasgow performance bar named Grand Ole Opry. She dreams of thrilling the original Opry in Nashville, but has two young kids from a gone lout, and her mother thinks she is a trashy party girl. If you recall Julie Walters’s youthful starburst in Educating Rita (1983), there is wistfulness in seeing her as the demanding, judgmental mom of a wayward mom. She is, as usual, excellent. The story’s feminist tripod is completed by Sophie Okonedo as Susannah. Up from London, a rich wife living in a Glasgow mansion, she becomes the ebullient mentor of her cleaning woman, Rose. Overly domesticated, she envies the young redhead’s dream and talent.

With workaholic Mom to criticize her, and Susannah to goad her with vicarious zeal, Rose will, of course, bloom. The script has knots. Doesn’t Rose have at least one or two fem-friends who could help her when she so desperately needs a sitter? Must she be so barb-wired by maternal guilt?  But director Tom Harper (from the BBC’s mini-series War and Peace) finds living nuances and makes  textured use of Glasgow and briefly Nashville. Above all, Buckley floods the movie with herself, without hamming. Going deeper than Lady Gaga’s recent A Star is Born, she carries unaffected prettiness with fierce sincerity into this hard-pressed, jaunty striver. Her dialog flows like her lyrics, going beyond the country sounds achieved in other films by Meryl Streep and Gwyneth Paltrow. If your ears fuzz on some of the Glaswegian dialect, never mind – just fold it into the music. The topper is Buckley’s “Glasgow,” a rousing anthem from actor and songsmith Mary Steenburgen.

SALAD (A List)
Ten Exciting High-Adrenaline Action Pictures
In order of my taste (with star, director, year):
Jaws (Richard Dreyfuss, dir. Steven Spielberg 1975), The Fugitive (Harrison Ford, dir. Andrew Davis 1993), Die Hard (Bruce Willis, dir. John McTiernan 1988), Kill Bill I and II (Uma Thurman, dir. Quentin Tarantino 2003-04), Run Lola Run (Franka Potente, dir. Tykwer 1999), The Italian Job (Mark Wahlberg, dir. F. Gary Gray 2003),City of God (Alexandre Rodrigues, dir. Fernando Meirelles 2002), The Naked Prey (Cornel Wilde, dir. Wilde 1965), Predator (Arnold Schwarzenegger, dir. John McTiernan 1987), Mad Max: Fury Road (Charlize Theron, dir. George Miller 2015) and Speed (Keanu Reeves, dir. Jan de Bont 1994).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
The artistic triumph of Citizen Kane hounded Orson Welles for the rest of his life. Contributing much to the 1959 hit Compulsion, his resentment about not directing it spilled open when he and director Richard Fleischer “had several drinks and Orson blurted out his conviction that he, not Fleischer was responsible for the success. Fleischer of course hotly denied it and Orson apologized after a long, painful pause. Fleischer tried to ease tension by saying how much he admired him: ‘I think I really won him over when I told him in all sincerity that he’d done the greatest movie ever made and that was good enough.’ It was not good enough. Perhaps it might be for history, but not for Orson, at 44 not about to start thinking about himself in the past tense.” (Quote from Barbara Leaming’s Orson Welles.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Among Nicole Kidman’s many fans, no one ever got more savvily smitten than critic David Thomson: “Kidman lights the rose window of his imagination, and his ornate valentine (the book Nicole Kidman), not a rom-com but a crit-rom, is often affectionately discerning. Thomson is criticism’s Lord of Conjecture, the Speculator General of smart movie daydreams and night sweats (his pinnacle, for me, is ‘James Dean at 50’ in Beneath Mulholland). For his larger opus The Whole Equation Nicole served as back-cover girl and inspired further spasms of delight.” (From the Kidman/Fur chapter in 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.



Accused killers Jud (Dean Stockwell, left) and Artie (Bradford Dillman) confer with Clarence Darrow-like defense attorney Wilkes (Orson Welles) in Compulsion (20th Century Fox 1959; director Richard Fleischer, d.p. William Mellors).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Nosh 161: 'Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood'

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

APPETIZER (Review: Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood )



Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood
Partly inspired by his big poster collection, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood reveals the West Coast’s supreme movie fanatic (Scorsese owns the East Coast) packing a consummation basket. Set in 1969, when QT was a wide-eyed 6, the story pivots on the buddy bond – “bromance” in modern argot – of rugged but fading star Rick Dalton and his devoted pal, driver, gofer, fixer, ego-masseur, stand-in and stunt man, Cliff Booth. Rick is acted by Leonardo DiCaprio and Cliff by Brad Pitt, two still hunky and (by abundant evidence) zealously straight stars. But in swingin’ but hardly liberated Hollywood ’69, post-Cary/Randy and more freshly post-Tab/Tony, two such adhesive studs would have been rumor-milled and even column-nipped as having a closeted connection. That, of course, is not the QT game, and he zestfully winks it away with a tossed line (“more than a friend, less than a wife”). 

The guys relish bad movies, old TV shows, booze, broads, cigars and Cliff’s pit bull Brandy (the scene featuring Wolf’s Tooth dog food joins a very special shelf next to “Couri brand” cat food in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye). As retro-macho dudes they are wary of marriage, hippies, drugs and guys like Al Pacino’s Marvin Schwarzs, a vintage agent who urges Rick to reboot via spaghetti Westerns (proud of his buckskin bonafides, Rick sneers – at first). With youth fading, Rick and Cliff are, in essence, lonely alcoholics.

His own tequila being nostalgia, Tarantino gleefully guzzles Rick’s career, in queasy decline since his early ’60s TV Western hit, Bounty Law. He had a cultish war movie but also endured “a Ron Ely Tarzan” and is becoming a plug-in villain. This all happens on the pilgrim map of QT’s memory tour: Capitol Records, Hef’s mansion, the mellow airport wall enshrined in Jackie Brown, the Bruin Theater and Van Nuys Drive-in, the Musso & Frank Grill (50 then, now a century old). History shadows Rick’s house and pool, which lie just below the hilltop mansion leased by newly A-listed Polish director Roman Polanski and his adorable new wife Sharon Tate. Tate’s fate date is, of course, Aug. 9, 1969, when Charles Manson’s berserk “family” slaughtered her and four others.

Manson is only briefly seen, but Tarantino coddles our shivers by making Sharon (Margot Robbie) a bouncing sunbeam of California dreamin’. Only he would follow her purchase of a Thomas Hardy first edition with her dropping into a Westwood theater to enjoy her dippy highjinks in Dean Martin’s The Wrecking Crew. Sharon parks her peachy bare feet on the seat ahead of her, setting up a later ricohet: a Manson slut’s “dirty hippie” feet, splayed on the windshield of Cliff’s car (but Margaret Qualley, as the lewd lollipop, inhabits her role as vividly as Robbie does Sharon).

Above all we relish the grooved binary of Rick & Cliff (Leo & Brad). DiCaprio, with a corn-bin accent and some added weight, seems at a disadvantage. And yet he goes into the man cave of this vain, shallow trouper, blending comedy and vulnerable exposure. During a studio shoot panic his ally is child scene-stealer Julia  Butters, a wee pro (and biz-bud feminist who scorns “actress”). All muscled cool, with nerves smooth as Shantung silk, Pitt drives hot, flashes his bod and even humiliates an amusingly pompous Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). Film-fan morsels hang like ripe fruit, offering juicy bites for Clu Gulager, Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, Emile Hirsch, Michael Madsen and Brenda Vaccaro, also Austin Butler as Manson’s creepy enforcer Tex.

Bruce Dern (who replaced the late Burt Reynolds) is a real wolf’s tooth in his spooky cameo as George Spahn. The Spahn Ranch was a fabled stable for Westerns, and the Manson bunch roach-nested there. The Spahn episode is a kind of spaghetti Western Psycho, with Dern a virtual Pa Bates and looney Norman fragmented into a fox posse of slutty dirtballs (as nut case Squeaky Fromme, Dakota Fanning is a long way from Uptown Girls). Pitt attains pinnacle form and may be the movie’s golden ticket of success. Like Bob Mitchum, he can register dry wit simply by listening, and he still can flash the abs that boosted him to stardom in Thelma and Louise. An acting Oscar at last for ol’ (55) Brad?
 
Once Upon a Time, which milks a few scenes but not stupidly, bends and swoops, held to its roller-coaster rails by Tarantino’s instincts as writer and director, basking in the shimmer and edge of Robert Richardson’s 35 mm. celluloid imagery. The music is a whirling festival, from Western themes to the Mamas and Papas to Bernard Herrmann. The Italian sequence (yep, Rick succumbs) adds a funny tangent, though the title bounce off Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time films feels less germane than the teeming L.A. sprawlers of Altman (Short Cuts), Schlesinger (Day of the Locust), Landis (Into the Night) and Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia). The film is a supple, circulating moodscape which, like Jackie Brown, goes beyond the QT corral of genre satire even while it fondly fondles numerous genres. This layered vision is Tarantino’s most personal. 

There could be too much snarling hippie-phobia (though many industry veterans felt that way at the time). Viewers may evaluate the picture on how it delivers the Manson nightmare. It does so in a jolting revisionist pipe-dream that flips the grisly old tragedy into a  thrilling and yet strangely consoling finale. This twist may be a jokey, violent coup de QT, but it is also a great relief valve for the audience. Not really the man for tragedy, Tarantino leaves us with a rather wistful pathos. If only life could be a movie (and don’t B-stars and stunt men deserve some magic?). The artistic showman is capping off his youth and roots, his signature obsessions and his dear, dreamy City of Movies Forever. Few such dazzling entertainments have been so remarkably human at heart.

SALAD (A List)
Ranking Tarantino’s Movies by Quality
By my taste, rating top to bottom:
Jackie Brown (1997), Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (2019), Pulp Fiction (1994), Kill Bill I and II (2003-04), Django Unchained (2012), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Inglourious Basterds (2009), The Hateful Eight (2015) and Grindhouse: Death Proof (2007). Can he really be serious about making only one more?

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Having once led Martians to Earth for his Halloween 1938 radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds, which roused panic among the nervously gullible and inattentive, Orson Welles also made a vocal contribution to the July 1969 moon trip of Apollo 11. Space buff Walter Cronkite’s TV coverage of the epic event included the documentary A History of Space Journeys, narrated by Orson. And newsman Mike Wallace looked back with Welles at the 1938 Mars broadcast. From there it was very earthwardly downhill, to Orson narrating a pseudo-documentary of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth in 1979. 

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“Steven Soderbergh saw in Jackie Brown ‘a very gentle piece, in a weird sort of way.’ Jackie and Max, who remain Tarantino’s most adult, dimensional figures, are not out to screw each other despite obvious opportunities (in both senses). Their deepening regard gives the story a core as the actors, in all their zigs and zags and zaps, achieve a flowing equilibrium of speech and silence, volition and reaction. Pulp Fiction was a hot dance floor. Pam Grier and Bob Forster take that upstairs for more soulful moves. The film has remarkably little mayhem for a modern crime story.” (From the Pam Grier/Jackie Brown chapter in 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.



Mr. Yunioshi, Holly Golightly’s silly neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, is a suicidal leap into ethnic stereotyping, but Mickey Rooney is still pretty funny (Paramount Pictures 1961; director Blake Edwards, d.p. Franz Planer).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Nosh 160: 'Meeting Gorbachev,' 'Pavarotti' and more


David Elliott
         
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, new each Friday.
(Note: Nosh 161 will appear on Friday, Aug. 2)

APPETIZER (Reviews: Meeting Gorbachev and Pavarotti)



Meeting Gorbachev
Try to imagine an 1820 documentary of the prematurely aged Napoleon being interviewed on St. Helena, recalling his victories, that damned Waterloo, and his lost dream of an imperial, Napoleonic Europe somehow true to the French Revolution. Impossible, of course, but here up-close is Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who transformed Europe with even more rapid force, and without war. Meeting Gorbachev, from Werner Herzog and colleague Andre Singer, captures the final Soviet president 36 years after the USSR dissolved. Interviewed by the German auteur, Mikhail Sergeyevich at 87 has a big gut and bloated face (his dome’s famous “port wine” birthmark seems faded), yet his pensive words, sly glances and sage twinkles reveal the unique authority of a man who made history on a huge scale. A devout Communist since youth, he yet ended the Red empire most Russians both feared and cherished. He ushered in German reunification, major arms treaties and, after losing power as the system collapsed, two aftershocks: the flop regime of “populist” drunk Boris Yeltsin and the klepto-tsarist rule of KGB man Vladimir Putin (seen moving like a cold eel at the 2015 funeral of Gorbachev’s beloved wife Raisa).

Among the few Herzogian touches is a triple dirge of Kremlin death rites for the “three fossils” (Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko). Their failed, geriatric tenures opened up power for the balding but young and energetic Gorbachev, a farmboy who, as a rising Party boss,often hitched rides or even walked his province. Necessity could mother only so much invention in a system as clotted and defective as the 1980s Soviet Union, and while he won the admiration of Reagan, Thatcher and big Western crowds, rigid Russian apparatchiks and bewildered citizens could barely fathom the lurching zig-zag of Gorbachev’s reforms. The easy charm so tonic to Western media never quite seduced a nation of weary, depressed, often alcoholic people still haunted by Stalin and the 25 million Soviet dead of World War II. Gorbachev was both an insider and outlier. He came too late or too soon – and after a great run, he ran out of luck.

The film is Herzog in a fairly official mode, using formal interviews, file footage and pensive pauses, laced with personal moments and memories. This is a moving, lastingly important homage to a humane Marxist whose devotion to peace and democratic change, though often wily, was not cynical (he seems a bit startled when Herzog proclaims his loving gratitude). Gorbachev remains pertinent: “People who don’t understand the importance of cooperation and disagreement should get out of politics” – a nail-hard rebuke to Trump and Putin, the vain, corrupt titans of our current disorder. Certainly neither would choose to recite “I Go Out on the Road Alone,” a lyrical poem about death and hope by the 19th century romantic Mikhail Lermontov. But Gorbachev does.  



Pavarotti
In Pavarotti the fabled tenor, simply Luciano to around two billion fans, is all about la abbondanza Italiana. Abundant in appetite – the meals, the widening girth! Abundant in goodwill – the adulation tours, the charities! Above all, abundant in song – his “Nessun dorma” routs Mario Lanza’s ghost! You don’t so much watch Ron Howard’s documentary as scarf it up, sauced by the positive emotion  of the former Opie’s adult career (Splash, Cocoon, Apollo 13, Cinderella Man, The Beatles, even Frost/Nixon). This tribute reveals the man himself only if you think that the private Luciano can be separated from his lifelong packaging. That began in childhood as a Modena baker’s child, the pasta cherub in a largely female family. Near the end he regretted being an inadequate father, yet he once put his hot career on hold for months to tenderly nurture a very sick daughter (she recovered).

The often astounding heart is the music, its standing-O  chorus including Michael Jackson, the Reagans, Bono, Nelson Mandela, Princess Diana and Joan Sutherland (the grand coloratura Aussie who gave the rising Italian key lessons in breath control). We meet the foxy, iron-willed managers, much of the big family and, of course, Placido Domingo and José Carreras, who joined Pavarotti in the profitable tours of the Three Tenors. We are spared Luciano’s fall into cinema buffa, the 1982 kitsch bomb Yes, Giorgio (he rose in a balloon, the movie sank). We can intuit Howard’s backstage politics to obtain candid talk and clips about the deeply domestic and then heartbroken wife Adua, and a young soprano Luciano mentored into an affair and scandal, then the short reign of adoring young wife Nicoletta (who inherited hugely). Always there is the solar beacon: the epic, toothy smile framed by hair, venting the voice that he called “the prima donna of my body” (in late years, less prima than problematic). Opera’s most stellar male since Enrico Caruso, Luciano was a complex, needy and life-consuming man. Howard’s aria della abbondanza is another obligatory ovation.

SALAD (A List)
10 Movies Concerning the Soviet Union
October (Sergei Eisenstein 1927), The End of St. Petersburg (Vsevolod Pudovkin 1927), Arsenal (Aleksandr Dovzhenko 1929), The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov 1957), Ivan’s Childhood (Andrei Tarkovsky 1962), One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Caspar Wrede 1970), Moscow on the Hudson (Paul Mazursky 1984), Come and See (Elem Klemov 1985), The Russia House (Fred Schepisi 1990) and Stalin (Ivan Passer 1992).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Orson Welles felt some chagrin that he didn’t direct The Third Man (1949), his greatest hit as an actor. Carol Reed let him shape his magnetically evil hustler Harry Lime: “Carol was the kind of person who didn’t feel threatened by ideas from other people. A wonderful director! In Europe the picture was a hundred times bigger than here, the biggest hit since the war. Europeans could understand (it) in a way Americans didn’t. They had been through hell, the war, the cynicism, the black market, all of that. Harry Lime represented their past, the dark side of them – yet attractive, you know. You cannot imagine what it was, a kind of mania. When I came into a restaurant, people went crazy, my one moment of being a superstar.” (OW to Henry Jaglom in My Lunches With Orson.)   

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Jim Bouton died on Wednesday, July 10 at 80, recalled for his highly debated career in big-time baseball and his funny, provocative memoir Ball Four. But for some of us he remains forever Terry Lennox, the tanned, jaded, smooth-talking killer in Robert Altman’s great 1973 film The Long Goodbye, betraying his pal Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould). Earlier, in Marlowe’s L.A. apartment “the pals joke about baseball’s DiMaggio brothers, a juicy spitball of dialog because Lennox is played by former Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton. Gould had pitched his chum to Altman, and Bouton marveled that “It’s like the Yankees reaching up in the stand to some guy and saying we’re putting you at third base today.” He was terrific. (Quote from the Gould/Long Goodbye chapter in 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.


Harry Lime (Orson Welles) hides from the Viennese sewer police in The Third Man (British Lion;/'Selznick 1949; director Carol Reed , d..p. Robert Krasker).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.