Friday, May 27, 2016

Nosh 17: 'Francofonia,' 'The Family Fang' & More

By David Elliott

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

APPETIZER (reviews of Francofonia and The Family Fang)
When you see a film as remarkable as Aleksandr Sokurov’s Francofonia, you realize that most of our current movies just barely have a brain stem. Not drama, not documentary, this is a packed, juicy meditation on art, museums, France, war, history, waste and illusion. Achieving visual beauties which only he seems capable of, the Russian director wanders through the Louvre, but mostly the restaged Louvre of 1940, with most of its treasures (except statuary) having found refuge south of Paris. The stripped frames are like hollowed, hallowed ghosts, past which walk unusual tourists: German soldiers on leave. The remnants are guarded not only by the resident administrator Jaujard (played by wonderfully named Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) but a German culture official, the cultivated Count Graff Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath).

The two men achieved a tense, formal friendship. Both would protect France’s heritage, and each won the Legion of Honor. With Sokurov narrating and commenting in his ruminative, melancholy Russian, we also visit a castle where Gericault’s grand Raft of the Medusa stands alone, safe but unvisited. With musically timed skill, Sokurov inserts vintage footage of Paris under Nazi rule (including the Hitler shots used in Marcel Ophuls’s The Sorrow and the Pity, but Sokurov impishly has the Fuhrer asking: Where’s the Louvre?). This is not quite such a choreographed poem as his  Russian Ark, a tribute to St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum shot as one long, flowing take, but his wit continues. He tries to gently wake an Egyptian mummy, and depicts France’s symbolic Lady Liberty, Marianne (played by a German actress!) admiring, along with a grumpy, possessive Napoleon, the Mona Lisa.

In a recurring gambit, Sokurov shows an art-laden cargo ship foundering at sea; it’s a rather waterlogged metaphor for Europe afflicted by post-Nazi terrorism. More moving are his images of Soviet Leningrad under siege, treated by the brutal Germans with none of the “Aryan courtesy” they affected in Paris. Francofonia pulls you into its wandering and wondering, and its inventive fertility rivals Orson Welles’s F for Fake and Alain Resnais’s Mon Oncle d’Amerique. Sokurov has made two of the supreme modern films, Mother and Son (1997) and Russian Ark (2002), and Francofonia is very close to that status, an international treasure.

Held together by conceptual hooks, The Family Fang will either zipper your attention as a curious family drama or leave you contemplating rips in the fabric. Fully engaged are Jason Bateman and Nicole Kidman, grown offspring of two “inspired” obsessives (Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett). As kids, the offspring were praised and pressured into being players and audience bait in transgressive “performance art” hoaxes. Pushed fervently by their Dada daddy, the Fangs are minor art stars. But now the matured siblings, as actor (Kidman) and novelist (Bateman), feel like spent troupers. When father Fang unleashes a crowning hoax, there is a sick sense of both abandonment and assault.

Kidman, always a gutsy star, is quite fine as the daughter who realizes that her modest stardom has faded twice (as a child, now as an adult). She opens up some angry, startling pain. Bateman’s work as her brother has a reflective naturalness, possibly because his energy also went into directing. Walken and Plunkett chew ham. Most of the elaborate Fang stunts are in the goof-gag lineage of Alan (Candid Camera) Funt and the Jackass boys. This odd movie, from Kevin Wilson’s novel, is over-determined by its ideas. There was more wit in Phyllis Diller’s silly jokes about her husband, “Fang.”    

SALAD (A List)
With a nod to Sokurov, my Ten Favorite Films by Russian Directors: Oblomov (Mikhalkov, 1980); Crime and Punishment (Kulidzhanov, 1970); I Am Cuba (Kalatozov, 1964); Russian Ark (Sokurov, 2002); Ménilmontant (Kirsanov, 1926); Hamlet (Kozintsev, 1964); October (Eisenstein, 1928); Mother and Son (Sokurov, 1997); The Cranes Are Flying (Kalatozov, 1957) and The Overcoat (Batalov, 1959).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Always bravura in his opinions, Orson Welles disliked safe, consensual taste: “I would personally die for Bach and Mozart, Bartok, Beethoven. I’m sure I’m right about them – and about Velázquez, too – but what troubles me is when people accept the whole edifice, the movies, the books, the paintings, what’s in, what’s out, just because it has already been accepted. That arouses my suspicion, even when it’s right.” (From My Lunches With Orson, by Henry Jaglom.) 

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
The bold virtuosity of Samuel L. Jackson: “Instantly cultish was his recital in Pulp Fiction of Ezekiel 25:17: ‘And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.’ Jackson syncopates and counterpoints hard-nail consonants, pontifical vowels, withering pauses. He’s the Glenn Gould of juju mojo. ‘Sam talked so fast,’ complained Pam Grier fondly, ‘that he could exhaust you just keeping up.” (From the Pam Grier/Jackie Brown chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)

DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro in Jackie Brown, 1997 (Miramax Films; director Quentin Tarantino; cinematographer Guillermo Navarro)

For previous Flix Nosh meals, scroll below.

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