Thursday, February 2, 2017

Nosh 51: 'Gold,' 'Hacksaw Ridge,' John Hurt

By David Elliott

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

APPETIZER: Reviews of Gold and Hacksaw Ridge
Matthew McConaughey emaciated himself to play AIDS-afflicted Ron Woodruff in Dallas Buyers Club. The gaunt performance was so good he not only won an Oscar, he even sustained his sex appeal. Then came cash-in gravy, but a talented actor can only do Lincoln car commercials for so long. So McConaughey shaved his hair to a balding mess, twisted his spine into a swayback to swing a pot gut of around 15 pounds, slum-dumped his teeth and obliterated his sex appeal, as rogue prospector Kenny Wells in Gold. Did Matt not recall starring in Fool’s Gold, in 2008?

Wells is a Reno slob, sucking cigs, snorting whiskey, oozing a kind of yokel cunning. He is often drunk, and we get a butt shot that is, well, remarkable. The script, loosely bundled from real events, is about an international gold-mining scheme that became a turnstile of dubious gambles. Gaping holes remain unfilled, and director Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) doesn’t master surreal plot loops like David O. Russell, the Coen Bros. and Paul Thomas Anderson. He’s closer to the gilded-gonzo excess of Martin Scorsese’s exhausting The Wolf of Wall St. In that one, McConaughey’s highrise hustler was a flashing diamond of star presence. Kenny Wells is like a swacked barfly hoping to extract gold from his armpits. There are only so many close-ups of Kenny an audience can take, and the script never allows a credible relation with his lover (jaunty fun-gal Bryce Dallas Howard) or his mining partner (macho but dull Edgar Ramirez). 

Gold has some adventure zest, a beautiful tiger, some stunning Indonesian jungles and weird, pulpy hints about the obscure business connections of Gerald Ford (the post-Nixon president). Not much gold there. To compare this creaky jalopy with the great gold-fever classics, Greed and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, would be fatuous. It is, for sure, better than Gold (1974), one of those vehicles which revealed that Roger Moore was, despite James Bond, a very limited star.

Hacksaw Ridge
So Mel Gibson, after years in shamed shadow, is heading back to the red carpet. No boozed, anti-Semitic rants, enabled by his fringe faith, have scared away this year’s Academy voters. They gave his factually derived war film Hacksaw Ridge six Oscar nominations: best film, director (Gibson), actor (Andrew Garfield), plus editing and two sound awards. I went to the movie out of morbid curiosity, wondering if Gibson, once a fine actor, has changed his stripes. For me, this picture is a totally schizoid Yes vs. No, at times a moving tribute but also a torture lab (and I’m not very squeamish).

The early Virginia scenes of Desmond Doss, a gangly Seventh-day Adventist (the movie begins with Bible quotes), are often so starchy with dated film tactics that they might embarrass Sergeant York, the piously sincere 1941 film about Alvin York, a conscientious objector turned WWI hero (a hit, it got Gary Cooper a best-actor Oscar). But Rachel Griffiths and Hugo Weaving are quite fine as Doss’s gentle mom and angry, WWI-guilty dad. Ditto  Teresa Palmer, as his girlfriend. And Garfield, having left his flowing Jesuit hair and crucified aura in Scorsese’s Silence, wins our fond loyalty as Doss, like a fresh hybrid of young Cooper and the pre-Psycho Tony Perkins. Garfield doesn’t merit an Oscar, but he puts a hero inside this movie, even as it churns into Mel’s hell.

After objector Doss survives ugly hazing in boot camp, he is shipped off to the Okinawa invasion in 1945, as an unarmed medic who won’t use a gun. Okinawa brings the full Gibson treatment, the blood obsession made notorious by Braveheart, Apocalypto and The Passion of the Christ. The movie could be the die-orama in a sadistic Slaughter Museum, run by a demented butcher: acres of suicidal, anonymous “Nips” charging at desperate Yanks, blown guts, crushed skulls, severed limbs, human torches writhing and screaming. Gibson’s notion of carnage relief is to show us Doss’s nightmare of being bayoneted. Doss was a great hero, saved 75 men, and won a Medal of Honor. Sadly, this patriotic blood bonanza reveals that Gibson is still our leading purveyor of expensive sadism. Mel, stick with the Globes – and go as a vampire.

SALAD (A List)
John Hurt, who died at 77 on Jan. 27, in England, was a stellar talent despite his famously homely face. one that became magnetically hideous but so poignantly human as John Merrick, “the Elephant Man.” I met him just once, on board the old Queen Mary in Long Beach, after a 1986 press showing of the instantly forgettable Jake Speed. We quickly agreed that the movie stunk, and then had a delightful conversation. My favorite Hurt performance was Giles, the snobbish cruiser who blithely desires and then touchingly befriends Jason Priestley in Love and Death on Long Island.

Let us salute 18 Outstanding John Hurt Film Roles over 50 years, in the order of their arrival: Richard Rich (A Man for All Seasons, 1966), Timothy Evans (10 Rillington Place, 1971), Quentin Crisp (The Naked Civil Servant, 1975), Caligula (I, Claudius, 1976), Max (Midnight Express, 1978), Kane (Alien, 1979), Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment, 1979), John Merrick (The Elephant Man, 1980), The Fool (King Lear, 1983), Braddock (The Hit, 1980), Winston Smith (1984, 1984), Stephen Ward (Scandal, 1989), Bird O'Donnell (The Field, 1990), Giles de’Ath (Love and Death on Long Island, 1997, see photo below), Garrick Ollivander (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, 2001), Old Man Peanut (44-Inch Chest, 2009), Christopher Marlowe (Only Lovers Left Alive, 2013) and The Priest (Jackie, 2016).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Criticism has often smirked at Charlton Heston, for playing the stolid Mexican cop Vargas in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958). Big star Chuck was somewhat confused, as Orson observed: “He has a theory that what went wrong with the film is that my part (Sheriff Quinlan) turned out to be too good. He forgot that it was the best part (from the start). And it was the most I could do to turn Heston’s part into anything at all, because he was just the leading man, with absolutely no character. I had to make him a Mexican, had to give him 20 problems, everything to make him good … but now, as he remembers it, I built up my part and that’s the only thing wrong with the picture!” (From This Is Orson Welles, by Welles and Peter Bogdanovich.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
For Wim Wenders, one of Europe’s great young directors in 1984, Paris, Texas was a big emotional test and an American leap for his chosen specialty, the road movie: “His male travelers, as in the great Kings of the Road, are bound by (and bond through) their eroticized fear of women. Other Wenders signatures included long takes, eloquent silences, introspective tangents, portentous vistas, kitsch, hard rock, film allusions, busted plotlines and angry love. ‘He can be very slow,’ said director Sam Fuller, ‘but the mood is going like fire.” (From the Harry Dean Stanton/Paris, Texas 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.

John Hurt, elegant as Giles in Love and Death on Long Island (Skyline Films, 1996; director Richard Kwietniowski, cinematographer Oliver Curtis).

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