Friday, April 8, 2016

Nosh 10: 'Eye in the Sky,' 'I Saw the Light' & More

By David Elliott

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

APPETIZER (reviews of ‘Eye in the Sky’ and ‘I Saw the Light’)
Alan Rickman was great even as a one-scene hotel clerk in Smiley’s People, then fully great as a smug villain (Die Hard), a dour swain (Sense and Sensibility ), a goofy space man (Galaxy Quest), a ghostly dreamboat (Truly, Madly, Deeply), a sinister master of magic (the Harry Potters), etc. Rickman imposed his moody power with a silky, stretched, often baleful voice, his wit could purr charm or fell like a guillotine slicing ice. Eye in the Sky is dedicated to him (he died Jan. 14), and his Gen. Benson, so bunkered in melancholy but ruthless in duty, is a wonderful curtain drop on a fascinating talent.

The British general oversees a drone operation reliant on American technology, and he is balanced by that other pillar of English acting authority, Helen Mirren, She’s Powell, the mission commander near London, though the drone’s “pilot” is a young Yank (Aaron Paul) based in Nevada. Powell is eager to kill a turncoat Brit plotting terror slaughter in Kenya. She is willing to bend the rules for it, but higher-up Benson must deal directly with nervous politicians seeking legal cover on slippery ethical slopes (and with enough voyeurism to satisfy any Hitchcock film). Rickman has, to perfection, a military man’s suspicious regard for civilian authority.

To the credit of writer Guy Hibbert and director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi), it is humanly revealing, not just cloying, that the escalation to a kill-or-not decision pivots on a little Kenyan girl (Aisha Takow) and a brave Somali agent (Barkhad Abdi of Capt. Phillips). Yes, it’s Screenwriting 101 when the girl’s love of a humble hula hoop (an offense to Islamic fanatics) balances Benson’s purchase of a lavish doll for his grandchild. The enemy remains essentially faceless, but the faces on our side do not hide behind astonishing technology (including a spy-cam that mimics a flying beetle). Vivid, real-time suspense, not just video-game kicks, involves stricken choices and complex feelings. Rickman and Mirren, those national treasures, were never more internationally resonant.

Does anyone recall George Hamilton’s 1964 portrayal of singer Hank Williams in Your Cheatin’ Heart? Will anyone in 2068 recall Tom Hiddleston’s Williams in I Saw the Light? The best Williams songs will endure, until country music is paved over by suburban sprawl. In singing those famous songs, Hiddleston has (despite criticism from Hank Williams III and other purists) gotten close to the essence, his voice and heart rooted in down-home feeling. Given that Hiddleston is another brainy Brit (a classics wiz at Cambridge), his performance is a credibly devoted tribute to the short-lived Southern king of what used to be called redneck, hillbilly or honky-tonk music (urban snarkers called it “shitkicker music”).

Writer, director, producer Marc Abraham has forged a labor of love, but sadly his labor grinds the love. Abraham, who made the small, appealing Flash of Genius with Greg Kinnear, offers pain-filled  songs more eloquent than long passages of malaise: Hank drinking, raging, smoking, chugging pills, suffering from spina bifida. His holy grail, the Grand Ole Opry, barely interrupts the down-spiral for him, his band and his great love and first wife, Audrey, well-acted by Elizabeth Olsen. I Saw the Light lacks style, fresh tangents, and freedom from the fan piety suggested by its come-to-Jesus title. Lean, vivid and commited, Hiddleston goes beyond his dark marcho narcissism in The Deep Blue Sea, but this plodding script never leads him to the jambalaya.

SALAD (A List)
My take on the Twelve Best Portraits of Real Musicians, roughly in order of quality: Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn, Coal Miner’s Daughter; Geoffrey Rush as David Helfgott, Shine; James Cagney as George M. Cohan, Yankee Doodle Dandy; Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf, La Vie en Rose; Gary Busey as Buddy Holly, The Buddy Holly Story; Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious, Sid and Nancy; Kurt Russell as Elvis Presley, Elvis; Angela Bassett as Tina Turner, What’s Love Got to Do With It; Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin, Beyond the Sea; Adrien Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman, The Pianist; Jessica Lange as Patsy Cline, Sweet Dreams, and F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri, Amadeus. 

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
From the start, the Welles vision was “ironical, urbane, as lordly as the thundering voice and as bemused as the arching eyebrows. It drew upon the passions of tragedy and the trickster zest of magic. OrsonWelles loved film because it, like his god Shakespeare, was so consumingly open to life, so potentially equal to his own appetite. He was in thrall to the way that image and sound, film and theater and radio and magic, can be fused in the startling purity of a dream. To get that deep-focal dream intensity, he shattered the box frame, used oblique angles, played boldly with twists of pace, pulse and mood. But to a public raised on the tasty and often trite recipes of ordinary movies, his art can seem ‘arty’ and cold.” (From my 1987 attempt to get a handle on Welles, in the San Diego Union.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
As a rising star in the 1950s, Anthony Perkins felt shadowed by his private self: “Perkins had been inanely touted as Paramount’s James Dean, although his ‘rebel’ streak consisted mainly of walking barefoot down Sunset Blvd. Like Dean he enjoyed manipulating gossip dragons Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, who saw a nice lad of opaque, studio-guarded sexuality. Tony triumphed as Gary Cooper’s scrupulous Quaker son in Friendly Persuasion, 1956. ‘Coop’ could read the clues, and mentioned that Perkins ‘might do well to spend a summer on a ranch.” (From the Perkins/The Trial chapter in my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, to be published soon.) 

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

Anthony Perkins in The Trial (Astor Pictures, 1962; director Orson  Welles, cinematographer Edmond Richard)
For previous Flix Nosh meals, scroll below 


  1. You didn't mention my favorite Rickman movie, "Bottle Shock," in which he plays a snooty British oenophile caught between the even snootier French and the upstart Napa Valley vintners. He don't get no respect in either sphere, but in this true story he ultimately changes the world of wine with a simple blind tasting.

    Scenes where his acting really stood out: when he first tries a bucket of KFC, pinkie elevated, or is given a bowl of guacamole to cleanse his palate; and when he's seated alone at a Paris wine tasting, the kitchen door constantly bumping his table.

  2. Jeffrey, thanks for the savvy comment. Not having seen Bottle Shock, I cannot offer a reply, but it sounds delectable for all Rickmaniacs. I shall track it down.

  3. David, I was about to recommend Bottle Shock (2008), but Jeffrey beat me to it. For his performance, Rickman won the Best Actor at the Seattle Film Festival. Another sweet diversion is Blow Dry (2000). Rickman also was in the political satire Bob Roberts (1992) directed by Tim Robbins. Now watch this segue, The Battle of Algiers -- the French film you included -- was listed by Tim Robbins as one of the ten best films of all-time in the decadal issue of Sight & Sound, which has the lists of critics and filmmakers. As you know, Hitch's Vertigo replaced Welles's Citizen Kane in 2012 as the best of all-time.