By David Elliott
APPETIZER (reviews of The BFG and Sunset Song)
Steven Spielberg, at times a brilliant movie-maker, has never shown much resistance to obviousness. In the preview “featurette” for The BFG, he stares glow-eyed at the camera and says “The arc of The BFG really touched my heart.” When his hand rises to touch his heart, he’s almost Joan of Arc. Or like Walt Disney, twinkling and avuncular when he did TV promo for his latest gifts as America’s Most Beloved Entertainer.
The BFG is a Disney-Amblin (Spielberg) production, adapted by the late Melissa Mathison from the 1982 children’s book by Roald Dahl. A wounded WWII hero (fighter pilot), Dahl shadowed his literary whimsies with some morbidly spooky stuff. But this movie’s “monster” giants are like epic, hairy oafs, and will probably scare only kids afraid of big, gaping mouths. The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) is Mark Rylance having a CGI effects ball. He mangles English comically, and enchants the brave girl he’s taken from London to the land of giants, a sort of verdant Iceland (he’s also a vegan; no BLTs for BFG). Rylance won an Oscar for Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, and was superbly subtle as Cromwell in the BBC’s Wolf Hall. But this is more fun, and while we are aware of whiz-bang effects we are not left chewing digital plastic from a theme park. The main theme (dreams) is a bit gooey -- the BFG is a dream-maker (i.e., Spielberg).
Ruby Barnhill as the adorable pre-teen, Sophie, is a spunky charmer, a worthy successor to my favorite Dahl heroine (Mara Wilson in 1996’s Matilda). She is like a hybrid of Mary Poppins and Mary Badham (Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird). Spielberg is a pastiche wizard, so we see a magical lake with a grand dream tree that evokes Avatar, Tinkerbell, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Maxfield Parrish. An enjoyably dotty segment has Penelope Wilton, fresh from Downton Abbey. As Queen Liz II, she has scampering corgis and a farting scene. One of her servants is named Mr. Tibbs (Rafe Spall, son of Timothy), so let’s hope that Sidney Poitier (They Call Me Mr. Tibbs!) got a piece of the action.
Sunset SongThe English director Terence Davies makes true art films, rich in atmospheric detail. Vapors of the past haunt the present (not least in old songs: pop, hymns, folk songs), and the saturating intensity can soak your mind. Davies made one of the finest memory films (The Long Day Closes), and one of the best play adaptations (The Deep Blue Sea, with a stunning Rachel Weisz). He has finally realized his dream of filming Sunset Song, adapting the first in a trilogy of novels by the productive but short-lived Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon.
The Scottish BBC did an acclaimed multi-parter in 1972, now, on a recent viewing, rather TV-turgid. Davies blows off the dust. His landscapes of Northeast Scotland have a sweeping, painterly beauty (due to 70mm film), and interiors (shot digitally) are charged with intimacy. Sunset Song is a family story, often grim thanks to veteran actor Peter Mullan as John, a brutally “religious” farmer who rules his family with strap-flogging fist and barking voice. He’s a glum, Calvinist fossil, furious that the old ways are expiring before World War I. John is hateful, yet when a stroke topples him Mullan makes us feel some pity, and when he’s gone a lot of the narrative tension leaves with him.
The central figure is John’s daughter Christine, shyly evading patriarchal sadism (saddest witness: her mother, exhausted by multiple childbirths). Agyness Deyn is a sweet, lovely, nuanced Chris, but she doesn’t have the star force to drive the story along, and she seems too mature, even modern for this rustic, though bookish drudge. Davies inserts tunes and some tender sex, but in a late, post-war section he revives male brutishness in a way that struck me as schematic and crude. This U-turn may be loyal to Gibbon, but it monkey-wrenches the movie. More’s the pity for Christine.
SALAD (A List)The Ten Best Spielberg-directed Movies, ranked in order by my taste: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws, Empire of the Sun, Lincoln, The Sugarland Express, Schindler’s List, Duel, Catch Me if You Can, The BFG, Bridge of Spies. These are his worst: Hook, War Horse, Always, War of the Worlds, Adventures of Tintin, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)By far the biggest public impact of Citizen Welles came with his Halloween, 1938 radio broadcast of the Martian invasion story The War of the Worlds, provoking panic among many who missed the docu-dramatic program’s explanatory opening. Steve Allen, at 16 still a dozen years from becoming a master of the coming medium, television, caught the fear bug with his mother and aunt in their Chicago apartment. They opted to flee to a church: “I was putting on my coat, still too shocked to say much. Oddly enough, my predominant emotion was not fear but blank stupefaction. I remember saying ‘Gosh’ over and over again. I couldn’t believe it, and yet I had to, on the basis of years of conditioning. CBS News had never lied to me.” His mom remained motherly: “Button your coat, Stevie. You’ll catch cold when you go out.” (From Steve Allen’s show-biz memoir, Hi-Ho, Steverino!)
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)For Katharine Hepburn, 1935’s Alice Adams at RKO was a tremendous test: “Biographer William J. Mann observes that ‘the resonance she found with Alice Adams was not an external parity but a kinship of the heart, the most promising sign yet of her development as an actress.’ By bending the tiara she built the crown, grew from style performance (shaping mannerist effects expressively) into depth performance (creatively externalizing the internal). The more intuitive and feminine Hepburn’s ‘wiles’ and ‘charms,’ the more they uncovered the bedrock of character.” (From the Katharine Hepburn/Alice Adams chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, now available from Amazon, Kindle and Nook.)
DESSERT (An Image)A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
Carroll Baker and Eli Wallach sauce up Dixie in Baby Doll (Warner Bros., 1956; director Elia Kazan, cinematographer Boris Kaufman)
For past Flix Nosh meals, scroll below.
For previous Flix Nosh meals, scroll below.