Friday, February 26, 2016

No. 4: Feb. 26, 2016

By David Elliott

A movie menu, retro-rooted but served fresh each Friday.

APPETIZER (Reviews of 45 Years and Where to Invade Next)
Forty-five years ago you could never have imagined Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as a couple. She was a Euro-queen of haughty seduction (The Damned, The Night Porter), he was a plain Brit playing men of small chances (Billy Liar, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich). She was one glittering step down from Catherine Deneuve, he was one humble stop over from John Hurt. Now she is 70 and he, as of yesterday, is 79.

They are splendid together as Kate and Geoff Mercer, retired and living near a lovely English town. The film is 45 Years, which is the wedding anniversary they are planning to celebrate with many friends. Then news comes about a woman he once loved, long dead. Geoff's heart is uneasily kindled. Kate's shivers, and not only because the news involves a glacier (as the British say, a "glassier"). We watch them dealing with it, each pause and hesitation as exposed and expressive as their words. Time has crumbled these fine faces, but Courtenay remains masterfully subtle (only Alec Guinness surpassed him) in his vulnerability. Rampling is a chalice of elegantly mature nuances.

45 Years is slight stuff compared to the great marital duets (Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson in Scenes From a Marriage, Blythe Danner and Michael Moriarty in Too Far to Go, Katharine Hepburn and Ralph Richardson in Long Day's Journey Into Night). But scripter and director Andrew Haigh has found the exact actors, the right settings and songs, and he doesn't settle for the soft goo of many "senior dramas." Life is mostly about moments, and truly felt ones live in this film.

In Where to Invade Next, Michael Moore has a tour that you won't see in the flashy cruise ads on PBS. Toting a big American flag, the liberal advocate "invades" countries that do some important things better than we do. In Italy, workers get five weeks of annual paid vacation and long breaks for delicious meals. France provides its school kids with healthy, refined lunches and smart sex education. Finnish schools teach by igniting imaginations in short, intensive workdays. Free college is standard in little Slovenia. Portugal de-criminalized drugs and now has a sane prison system. Rising female power is humanizing Iceland and even Muslim Tunisia, and rich Germany has gone beyond the Weimar Republic's best dreams.

It is too easy to zing Moore for shtick like the flag, for glib interviews and facile clips (the perfectly stupid Rick Perry moment is a marvel). Moore, the spark from Flint, is not a documentarian but an argumentarian -- he stokes arguments, or (in this case) nudges one along. Can he really expect this blithe, wandering editorial to rouse a nation of 322 million, currently afflicted by ideological toxins? What he drives home is the homeland insecurity of an imperial America often acting provincial, in which a polemical approach like Moore's can seem almost sophisticated.

SALAD (A List)
In honor of 45 Years, my selection of the Twelve Best British Romantic Films: Persuasion (Mitchell, 1995), I Know Where I'm Going (Powell, 1945), Sense and Sensibility (Lee, 1995), Pygmalion (Asquith, 1938), Brief Encounter (Lean, 1946), Maurice (Ivory, 1987), The Deep Blue Sea (Davies, 2011), Bright Star (Campion, 2009), All or Nothing (Leigh, 2012), Among Giants (Miller, 1998), Truly, Madly, Deeply (Minghella, 1990) and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Lewin, 1951).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Citizen Welles never liked his somewhat snubby nose, and for Mr. Arkadin (1955) "the ubiquitous false nose was sharp and aquiline... Prior to the film, Orson obtained his false noses from his 'nose man,' John O'Gorman, who would ship dozens of false noses (made of mortician's wax) to any part of the world. This time he failed to send his most realistic noses to Orson to use as Arkadin, a fact that Orson complained about for years afterward." (From Frank Brady's very knowing biography Citizen Welles.)

ENTREE (Starlight Rising)
"The Producers runs past its high point, but Mostel gives it a size beyond weight, and Max is great beyond greed. Mere lucre cannot define a man who can exalt a hot dog, wear a filthy cravat, flaunt a cardboard belt and attempt to top his career with a colossal dud. His performance is in line with a truth that Walter Kerr discerned in silent comedy: 'The content of the work must fall into place without forcing, with simple rectitude. And its creator must expose himself in the content, as wholly as it is possible for a mortal man to do." (From the Zero Mostel / Producers chapter in my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, coming soon from Luminare Press.)

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

Zero Mostel and Estelle Winwood in The Producers (Avco Embassy; director Mel Brooks, cinematographer Joseph Coffey).


  1. So pleased Jane Austen made a 'salad', or rather solid, showing in the Best British Romantic Films.

    Your depth of film knowledge is amazing David!

  2. The ongoing trick is to find some depth in the shallows. Thanks for your attention and comments!