Friday, August 12, 2016

Nosh 28: 'Life, Animated,' 'Captain Fantastic' & More

By David Elliott

Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, served fresh each Friday.
(Time for a summer pause. The next Nosh will be on Aug. 26)

APPETIZER (reviews of Life, Animated and Captain Fantastic)
At age three Owen Suskind was the bright, adorable son of bright, adoring parents (his older brother Walter was also fairly fab). But then, he suddenly wasn’t there, and father Ron, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, felt “like we were looking for clues to a kidnapping.” Owen had fallen into the dark mental cave of severe autism, spoke gibberish and seemed an emotional alien. Cornelia, the mom, tearfully staved off panic. Doctors offered little hope, and everyone felt in exile from the playful little boy who had caught an express to oblivion.

And then, incrementally, the miracle. One day Ron realized that one of Owen’s obscure blurts was dialog from The Little Mermaid. The kid had loved Disney cartoon films, now he was using memory (and new viewings) to build an expanding vent of recovery. The family got into his Dis-mension, as dialog (and songs) mutated into Owen’s growing vocabulary of therapy. True, his voice still sounds a bit cartoonish, and his preference for  sidekick figures reveals a self-doubting resistance to heroes. He and his family are heroes, and by the end of Life, Animated the odd but thoughtful graduate is getting his own apartment and a job. The Suskinds still dote on him, without corny (don’t say “Disney”) sentimentality.

Impeccably filmed by Roger Ross Williams and edited by David Teague, Life, Animated use home videos, interviews, fabled movie clips and beautifully fluent, non-Disney drawings of Owen’s comeback (Gilbert Gottfried drops in, amusingly). It is the best documentary about an artistic rise from mental damage since 2010’s Marwencol, and though we don’t need to get too drippy about Disney, a corporate empire, the sense of how such imaginative products impact young lives becomes unusually, personally moving. Owen is a love-saved Pinocchio, becoming (again) a real boy, and now a boyish man of 25. We easily embrace him, his family, the film and the Disney  characters. Did it help that Owen’s brother is named Walt?

Captain Fantastic
Harking back to an era when growing a beard seemed an important cultural decision, Captain Fantastic is about a modern Pacific Northwest family living in the forest. The survivalist dad teaches kids (three girls, three boys) to hunt wild game with knives and rope-climb sheer cliffs. The kids are Central Casting charmers, and the family rapport has appeal. Viggo Mortensen as Ben Cash, the father recently widowed, is like the manly totem of a new, pioneering race. His children, while living rough, are also reading Nabokov, physics and languages. They strum folksy guitars but also appreciate Bach.

Like an overhaul of Swiss Family Robinson sprinkled with Ken Kesey, even some Noam Chomsky, the movie has a stacking-the-chips script. The Cashes go to New Mexico for the mother’s funeral. The kids gawk at fat people in fast-food restaurants, and are wowed by video games. When they say “Stick it to the man,” we can’t tell if the film is saluting or ribbing a ’60s radicalism from before their birth. Mortensen’s hovering, patriarchal smugness meets its match when the rich, piously Christian grandfather tries to take away the children – nobody glowers with smugness better than Frank Langella.

An awkwardly staged scene in church recalls those vessels of artificial counter-culture, Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack movies. Director Matt Ross clamps on tight close-ups whenever emotions rise, as if insisting that we feel this now. In sincerity the movie echoes the better, Sixties-haunted family movie Running on Empty (1988), but it is hurt by facile touches like Ben’s old Jesse Jackson campaign shirt. If Ben ever noticed Trump on TV, his rage might set the forest on fire.     

SALAD (A List)
Ten good movies about (but not from) the Sixties:
Ali, American Graffiti, An Education, Catch Me If You Can, Moonrise Kingdom, Pirate Radio, Rescue Dawn, Running on Empty, A Single Man, Taking Woodstock.

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
In May, 1941, Citizen Kane opened at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood, refurbished for the occasion. Despite Hearst press hostility, “on hand were Charles Laughton, Gloria Swanson, Mickey Rooney, Maureen O’Hara, Franchot Tone, Olivia de Havilland, Sonia Henie, Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour and Adolphe Menjou …Welles himself showed up with Dolores Del Rio on his arm, and (as before) the two slipped out a side door after the film began. He still couldn’t sit through a screening of his movie without calculating how it might be improved.” (From the obscure but stimulating Walking Shadows by John Evangelist Walsh.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“By hoarding dialog coins, then investing them in a cascading verbal crescendo, Paris, Texas risks everything on our attentive, patient goodwill. This was gutsy, given the doubting, cynical, sentimental or sensational habits of modern audiences. With Wim Wenders, Sam Shepard gambled his way to what Elizabeth Hardwick had discerned in his plays: ‘Tone and style hold the work together, create whatever emotional force it will have.” (From the Harry Dean Stanton/Paris, Texas chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, now available via Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)

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

Joan Crawford and John Barrymore in Grand Hotel (MGM, 1932; director Edmund Goulding, cinematographer William Daniels)

For previous Flix Nosh meals, scroll below.

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