Friday, March 4, 2016
No. 5: March 4, 2016
By David Elliott
A movie menu, retro-rooted but served fresh each Friday.
APPETIZER (reviews of RACE and THE LADY IN THE VAN)
One of the thrills of Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia, probably the finest film about sport, is seeing track-and-field legend Jesse Owens, dominating the first half. There is Hitler at the vast Berlin stadium built for the 1936 Olympics, applauding his master race. And here comes the very black American, a bolt of lightning. He won four gold medals, and the Nazi but not racist Riefenstahl gave her film's best star shots to der schnellste Mann der Welt (the world's fastest man).
Though Germany won the most medals, what everyone remembers is Owens (and a great film). Race is certainly not in a race with Olympia, but director Stephen Hopkins's reliance on some stale bio-pic cliches doesn't kill his movie. With its fine computer-enhanced stagings of 1930s Berlin and New York, and a solid cast, it finds the sweet spot: the tremendous tensions and then glory of a physical genius who, having endured American racism (North and South), eclipsed Nazi racism in four contests. Surely, no one-word title has had a more cogent double meaning than Race.
Built like a taut, sculpted gazelle, Owens looked fast even when just standing. Actor Stephan James has a blocky build, but his earnest humanity pays off, with a strong tripod of support: Jason Sudeikis as Larry Snyder, track coach and boozing ramrod; Jeremy Irons, growling wonderfully as Olympics official Avery Brundage, and David Kross as the decent German athlete "Luz" Long, who befriended Owens. The plot maintains the myth that Hitler snubbed Owens with a walk-out (in fact, he congratulated him behind the stadium, and later sent a framed portrait!). Race honorably salutes its hero.
When we saw Maggie Smith as the dowager countess, comforting her grand-daughter Mary in the next to last episode of Downton Abbey, her brilliance shone again in full beauty of subtlety. Now, in The Lady in the Van, she plays Mary Shepherd, a former nun and serious pianist. The rattled itinerant lives in her ratty van outside the London house of playwright Alan Bennett. Their odd friendship lasted 15 years, until by death she did part.
Into Bennett's script director Nicholas Hytner has crammed various devices: Bennett (wry, dry Alex Jennings) is split into twin parts as writer and private person -- as if, for any real writer, the two are not the same; quaint locals dispensing cute remarks; Chopin's music to gravy the thin patty of story; many mentions of Mary smelling bad, and a "surprise" that arrives as a limp jolt. Dame Maggie, 81, presses on, decrepit but unbowed, scattering seeds of cranky charm and puppy-eyed pathos. It's like a forlorn valentine to the fabled, postwar Ealing films, and yet never so engaging as Colm Meaney in The Van (1996).
SALAD (A List)
In honor of Spotlight, the newspaper film "hot from the headlines" that won Best Picture at the Oscars on Sunday -- the first of that little genre to take the prize, and probably the last -- here are my choices of the Ten Best Newspaper Movies. Starting at the top: All the President's Men (Pakula, 1976), Sweet Smell of Success (Mackendrick, 1957), Spotlight (McCarthy, 2015), His Girl Friday (Hawks, 1948), Call Northside 777 (Hathaway, 1948), Park Row (Fuller, 1952), Platinum Blonde (Capra 1931) and Deadline - USA (Brooks, 1952). Citizen Kane, Roman Holiday, It Happened One Night and The Philadelphia Story go beyond this category.
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Here is a glimpse of Citizen Welles, becoming radio's top voice 80 years ago: "CBS offered him his first regular radio stint in mid-January 1936. (Four days a week) he recited poetry for 15 minutes ... 'I got 50 bucks each time,' he recalled, 'and it was terribly nice money to have, because I just turned up five minutes ahead of time and read a poem.' His knack for speaking intimately to housewives led to more of the same." (From Patrick McGilligan's excellent new book Young Orson.)
ENTREE (Starlight Rising)
A big career test confronted my favorite Italian actor, Marcello Mastroianni: "He felt empowered by La Dolce Vita, but also burdened by a reductive bonus: the Latin Lover label. Maureen Orth's 1986 interview found this amusing: 'Sighing, Mastroianni patiently tries to put all this Latin lover chatter into perspective. What it is, he says, is an occupational hazard. A fireman gets burned, Mastroianni gets seduced.' Fighting back, he became impotent in Il 'Bell Antonio, a cuckold in Divorce, Italian Style, a shy, myopic radical in The Organizer, a comically crazy king in Henry IV." (From the Mastroianni/La Dolce Vita 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.
Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg and kitten in La Dolce Vita. (Cineriz/Astor Pictures; director Federico Fellini, cinematographer Otello Martelli)