By David Elliott
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, served fresh each Friday.
APPETIZER (reviews of The Infiltrator and Wiener-Dog)
After enduring some of Manure Fest ’16, more formally known as the Republican National Convention, it was a relief to find myself watching The Infiltrator, a crime picture rich in ruthless narcs and cruel scuzzballs. Robert Mazur went undercover in the ’80s to penetrate far-flung tentacles of the Pablo Escobar cocaine empire based in Colombia. Vulnerably using a deluxe valise fitted for covert taping, Mazur set up a money-laundering operation during the Reagan “Just Say No” era. He spun a cobweb for street thugs and Panamanian bankers and vicious, high-end traffickers.
You might exude a wary groan settling into this, as many fixtures evoke countless rampant movies and TV shows. Do we need another Scarface binge of Florida and Sudamericano creeps? But Brad Furman directed with a tense regard for balance, not pushing the vintage outfits and sleaze parties into camp, laying on bling without amping into Miami Vice kitsch, and not overselling violence (there are real jolts – the cake scene is a classic). His ace all the way is Bryan Cranston as Bob Mazur, a loyal family man. Tempted by crime rewards, Bob remains too inwardly terrified (and smart, and decent) to sell-out. Furman, who gave Matthew McConaughey the start of his triple surge to a new level with The Lincoln Lawyer (after it came Mud and Dallas Buyers Club), now provides Cranston with a trifecta topper for his film surge (which began with All the Way and Trumbo).
Cranston, whose well-mapped face and honed instincts are true in every move, sigh, stare and word, basically did a long warm-up for this with TV’s Breaking Bad. He has the supple, sure authority that can make an actor last and last (definition: Robert Duvall). The excellent cast includes John Leguizamo as a risk-happy federal mole, Juliet Aubrey as Mazur’s wife, Diane Kruger as Bob’s fake “fiancée,” old ugly-mug Simón Andrea as a stupidly amused hoodlum, Benjamin Bratt as an urbane master of evil deeds, and Yul Vazquez as a bisexual viper who seems to blend the aging Tony Curtis with Dean Stockwell in Blue Velvet. Olympia Dukakis drops in as Mazur’s cynical aunt, prompting an Oscars joke (she took the supporting trophy for Moonstruck in 1987). The story’s climax, a true crescendo, satisfies.
Wiener-DogOnly weeks after Weiner, a sharp political documentary, we get Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog, which is … what? Well, Solondz is bouncing off the abusive nickname of his homely heroine (Heather Matarazzo) in his 1995 oddball Welcome to the Dollhouse. Now he uses a female dachshund with lovable eyes, a kind of mascot for … what? Sort of a dark comedy, a turnstile of alienated winks. At first the canine goes to a lonely boy whose control-freak family includes tightly wired mom Julie Delpy (she put on serious weight to play this grim frump, for me the most depressing thing about the film). She shares tender memories of a rabid hell dog named Mohammed, which may be Solondz’s gambit for topical currency as … what? Better kiss off the Arab market.
Then there is Greta Gerwig’s dull, cute airhead, hooked on a drug addict (Kieran Culkin). She gives the dog to a mentally handicapped couple. In another segment, Danny DeVito is a hack film teacher, Dave Shmerz (were Shmuck, Shlong and Shlemiel the witty alternatives?). Dave straps the trusting pooch to a suicide bomb, then walks away. And there is a dying, bitter grandmother (Ellen Burstyn), who quaintly renames the dog Cancer. The dachshund gets squashed by a truck (please don’t be an idiot and complain of spoilers – the spoiler is the film). Wiener-dog is like a dyspeptic reject from Portlandia, or a ditzy cinema nerd’s attempt to overhaul Au Hasard Balthazar, Robert Bresson’s vision about the wandering travails of a soulful donkey. The donkey would have kicked the dog.
SALAD (A List)These are the Ten Best Dog Movies, at least in my kennel: Umberto D, Best in Show, A Dog’s Life, The Lady and the Tramp, High Sierra, The Artist, We Think the World of You, Turner & Hooch, Across the Bridge, Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey.
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)Citizen Welles’s biggest blast of fame as an actor was not Citizen Kane but came in 1948, in Carol Reed’s and Graham Greene’s baroque Vienna mystery The Third Man. His suave scoundrel Harry Lime has minority screen time, but Welles knew that didn’t really matter: “Every sentence in the whole script is about Harry Lime – nobody talks about anything else for ten reels. And then there’s that shot in the doorway, what a star entrance that was! What matters is how much the other characters talk about you.” (Orson Welles to Peter Bogdanovich in This Is Orson Welles.)
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)The Tampico cantina fight of Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt and Barton MacLane in Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of the great movie brawls: “It took five days to shoot. John Huston and cinematographer Ted McCord (rooted in Westerns) achieved the violent chiaroscuro of three crude men in churning, ungainly motion. Onlookers gape and sway in sync. A dozen punches and groaning pushes bring clumsy exhaustion. This is not pugilism but payback, a Goya tangle of furious beasts in the pit of survival. Fred puts Pat down with a mean kick, snarling ‘give us our money.’ He has, undeniably, Bogarted the joint.” (From the Humphrey Bogart/Treasure of the Sierra Madre 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.
Orson Welles suaves the slime of Lime in The Third Man (Korda/Selznick, 1948; director Carol Reed, cinematographer Robert Krasker).
For previous Flix Nosh meals, scroll below.