By David Elliott
APPETIZER (reviews of My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 and Knight of Cups)Nothing occupies the modern film industry more than the redundant “art” of recycling. Here are two new examples, one amusingly corny, the other an artistic dead end.
After she made My Big Fat Greek Wedding in 2002, writer and self-made star Nia Vardalos could have sat on her Greek laurels forever. Her comedy made $250 million. After 14 years, she unleashes another “Opa!” for the Portakolos family of Chicago: Toula (Vardalos, still a pleasure); her WASPy catch as husband, Ian (John Corbett, still a genial hunk); their adorable teen daughter Paris (delightful Elena Kampouris); Toula’s enjoyably pushy mom Maria (Lainie Kazan, her role and presence both enlarged); Maria’s husband Gus (basset-eyed Michael Constantine, still an endearingly pesty grump). Add Andrea Martin as Aunt Voula, who still has the best comic timing, and enough other relatives to staff at least three sitcom spinoffs and a Greek sailing expedition to Milwaukee.
No need to think much here, but it does occur to us that a culture which gave the world so much beauty has perhaps never before been associated with so much bad taste (what, no gilded nude statues of Michael Dukakis and Spiro T. Agnew?). And the sweet little nod to a gay couple is not exactly an adequate statement on what the prim Victorians called “Greek love.” MBFGW 2 is like diving into an Olympic pool of re-baked moussaka (the crunchy bits are the laughs). Under all the jolly loudness of its family, uniting again for another wedding, we hear the nostalgic murmur of a wheezing “Opa!,” the last ethnic sunset of Zorba the Greek.
No moviemaker since Stanley Kramer has laid down more golden tiles of heavy, searching themes than Terrence Malick. Kramer was an industry insider, but director-writer Malick is more of an A-list maverick, a visionary prowling the hills like a princely coyote. He has won some biz-town respect (for Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Tree of Life) and some sizeable budgets (The Thin Red Line, The New World), but there is always the aura of a shaman who can stare at a rock and see a mandala.
Malick has finally zeroed in on Los Angeles, and made a zero: Knight of Cups. True to title, there is a Tarot reader, babbling like Hollywood’s finest old gypsy crone, Maria Ouspenskaya. Also an Elvis impersonator in Vegas, a lusty pole dancer and a wounded pelican. Mostly there are streaming, almost tranced vistas of Greater L.A, which is where hypnotic becomes sedative. Nearly all the sights are familiar (the towering palms of Beverly Hills, the Sunset Strip, swank showcase homes, the river control channels, Venice beach). Malick probably never imagined that his glowing pictorials would often remind us of better movies which used the same locations.
It is dodo crazy to hire such a daring actor as Christian Bale to impersonate driftwood. As melancholy screenwriter Rick, his almost toneless voice-overs arrive like solemn whimpers. As his angry dad, Brian Dennehy appears to be burying the last remains of his acclaimed Willy Loman. Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman play Rick’s lovers as if searching for an invisible script in the air. Malick keeps returning to water elements, but Paolo Sorrentino found more poetry with two Roman walks along the Tiber in The Great Beauty. Sofia Coppola’s stripped-down Somewhere, about a bored young star (Stephen Dorff), nailed down the glam-blues of L.A. far more smartly than this empty Cups.
SALAD (A List)Whatever its worth in deflated drachmas, here is my list of Ten Top Greek and Greek-Themed Films: Zorba the Greek (Cacoyannis, 1964), Z (Costa-Gavras, 1969), Ulysses’s Gaze (Angelopoulos, 1995), The Trojan Women (Cacoyannis, 1968), Agora (Amenabar, 2010), High Season (Peploe, 1987), Pascali’s Island (Deardon, 1988), Eternity and a Day (Angelopoulos, 2008), Ulysses (Camerini, 1954) and Troy (Petersen, 2004).
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)Citizen Orson’s great hero was Shakespeare, yet without glazed piety. As critic Brooks Atkinson noticed in the 1936 Harlem production of Macbeth: “The witches scenes from Macbeth have always worried the life out of the polite, tragic stage. The grimaces of the hags and the garish make-believe of the flaming cauldron have bred more disenchantment than anything else that Shakespeare wrote. But ship the witches into the rank and fever-stricken jungle, stuff a gleaming, naked witch doctor into the cauldron, hold up Negro masks in the baleful light – and there you have a witches’ scene that is logical and stunning and a triumph of the theater art.” (From James Naremore’s brilliant book The Magic World of Orson Welles.)
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
The one charismatic rival of Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams (1935) is the family’s hired cook, Malena, the “ancestor of Octavia Spencer’s payback pie in The Help. Cramming surly, sullen rage into every ‘Yas’m,’ Malena is a racial comedy gargoyle, funnier then than now. And superbly played. Hattie McDaniel, abundant (and abundantly employed) stated her reality principle: ‘Why should I complain about making seven thousand dollars a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making seven dollars a week being one.” (From the Hepburn/Alice Adams chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, coming soon.)
DESSERT (An Image)A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
Katharine Hepburn and Fred MacMurray in Alice Adams (RKO Pictures; director George Stevens, cinematographer Robert De Grasse)
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