By David Elliott
APPETIZER (reviews of Little Men and Hell or High Water)
It’s been too long since I got excited about discovering a director, and Ira Sachs is no newcomer. He has made seven features; among those I have missed is his Memphis music story with Rip Torn, Forty Shades of Blue. I loved his suspenseful drama Married Life, though its retro styling was a little tidy and curatorial. And, even more, his movie about an aging gay couple, Love is Strange, with its terrific performances by Alfred Molina and John Lithgow. Sachs, who is 50, gay, Jewish and very New York, hits the golden nail again with Little Men.
As in Love is Strange, we’re in New York (now Brooklyn) and “gentrification” is in full cry. Sweating it is Brian (Greg Kinnear), a devoted actor but a Chekhov man, not a Broadway man. He inherits his slightly estranged father’s swell apartment. The ground floor is a dress shop run by flinty, South American émigré Leonor (Paulina Garcia). Her lovely but old-style dresses are selling poorly and, feeling like “family” because the dead father gave her friendship and soft rent, she doesn’t want to budge. But money needs also hound Brian and his hard-working wife and sister. His son Jake (Theo Taplitz) is an aspiring artist who seeks to attend the best high school for the arts.
In a vividly fresh approach, Sachs and fellow writer Mauricio Zacharias pivot the story on the new teen friendship of Jake and Leonor’s son Tony (Michael Barbieri), a street-hip kid with an old Brooklyn spin of gab. Moving like whippets through the city, the boys are ripening in a way that leaves the harried adults feeling like clogged cogs. They aren’t sure how to handle their sons, mindful boys but, like all teens, self-involved. Growth is no guarantee of grace, Leonor proves stubbornly difficult, and Brian cannot turn to Chekhov for solutions.
Sachs is expert with mood, atmosphere and actors (he loves them, and tucked in a swell bit role for Alfred Molina). The boys are teens without Hollywood glazing, and Kinnear’s important speech about “balance” is utterly apt. Not only as advice to his son, but as our clue to Sach’s defining gift. He’s a juggler who drops nothing.
Hell or High Water
After 45 years Jeff Bridges has settled into his aged bulk and rough, baked hide, like Ben Johnson’s Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show. Set further west in Texas oil country, Hell or High Water is not a bravura soaper like the 1971 vision of small-town Texas that brought Bridges into view. Its rustics are even more parched for hope, in this crime yarn of heat and dust, beer and whisky, poker and profanity, expendable women and too many available guns. Dull towns only survive by the will of smug banks. To save their late mother’s ranch from foreclosure, hard-luck brothers Tanner (Ben Foster) and Tobey (Chris Pine) start knocking over the area’s main chain of banks, to pay off the home loan. Oil has been found on their land, so they must steal fast and wild or the bankers will soon get even richer.
The brothers – ex-con Tanner is a danger freak, the divorced, guilty Tobey is morose from pain – are pursued by more slow-poke Texas Rangers: the nearly retired but cagey Marcus (Bridges), and his Comanche-Mexican partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham, speaking the least but seeming most real). Prone to macho needling, Bridges often sounds as if a plug of chaw was stuck in his gullet. Foster and Pine are so beef-jerky manly and rustic that about half their dialog begs for subtitles. English director David Mackenzie is clearly no native here, and he relies on Bridges to provide depth and heft (much as Ben Johnson did in Last Picture Show).
The story rips along, pushing suspense into violence, saving its best scene for the very end. The sag factor is that other films have roamed this generic turf more creatively: Bonnie and Clyde almost half a century ago, The Getaway in the ’70s, The Newton Boys in the ’90s. This is another modern show which relies on a mostly young audience to be ignorant about the movie’s superior ancestry.
SALAD (A List)Ten Good Films About New York Kids and Teens, in order of arrival:
Dead End (William Wyler, 1937), The Quiet One (Sydney Meyers, 1948), Little Fugitive (Ashley/Engels, 1953), Blackboard Jungle (Richard Brooks, 1955), West Side Story (Robbins/Wise, 1961), The World of Henry Orient (George Roy Hill, 1964), Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977), The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979), Fresh (Boaz Yakin, 1994) and Raising Victor Vargas (Peter Sollett, 2003).
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Though for philistine taste he may seem an “intellectual director,” Orson Welles had a visceral suspicion and even dislike of intellectual cinema: “You could write all the ideas of movies, mine included, on the head of a pin. It’s not a form in which ideas are very fecund, you know. It’s a form that may grip you or take you into a world or involve you emotionally, but ideas are not the subject of films.” (From Barbara Leaming’s Orson Welles. I disagree with Orson’s first sentence.)
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)On the grand Champs-Elysees in Paris, in 1956, “I was directing Fred Astaire (walking and singing ‘Bonjour Paris’), and we had to have extras dressed as policemen to keep away the crowds …we used crumpled-up cigarette packages as Fred’s marks, and then I hit the playback and Fred started singing that song. I thought ‘This is it! In my entire life, this is all I ever wanted to do.” (Stanley Donen in the Audrey Hepburn/Funny Face chapter of my book Starlight Rising; Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Kindle and Nook).
DESSERT (An Image)A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
For previous Flix Nosh meals, scroll below.