Thursday, February 16, 2017

Nosh 53: 'Fences,' 'Things to Come' & More

By David Elliott

Flix Nosh is a personal movie meal, fresh each Friday.

APPETIZER: Reviews of Fences and Things to Come

I put off seeing Fences – maybe too much early Oscar buzz? – but have gladly caught up. Denzel Washington has a career capper in the sort of stage-rooted showcase which Sidney Poitier had in A Raisin in the Sun (1961). Both actors had meteor-impact virility, and largely defined what black star acting can be on screen. In recent years Washington’s career has suffered too many disposable films, but he storms back as Troy Maxson in Fences. He anchors the story with work so rich and ripe that even a few touches of excess make you want more. He is Troy in truth.

Having done August Wilson’s drama on Broadway in 2010, he also directed this film, employing mostly the same cast (the late Wilson’s screenplay of his 1987 play was finished by Tony Kushner). At 62 Washington is no longer a stud prince, but his meat-packed, rampant force remains amazingly potent. Troy, an ex-con, is bitter about being a poor garbage man in 1950s Pittsburgh ($76.22 a week). His proud, bravura style taps his rage and unexamined self-pity, and he offsets illiteracy with surges of verbiage both jovial and menacing. His old, loyal friend (Stephen Henderson, wonderfully subtle) and his jazz-man son (reflective Russell Hornsby) often fall silent in his shadow. Having lost his past dream of baseball glory, Troy is determined to kill the football hopes of his bristling teen son (Jovan Adepo, at moments Poitier-like).

Viola Davis is an actor cowed by nobody. As Troy’s wife Rose, she seems chained to her stove (white Jesus glows on a plate above the sink). But as the lacerating, self-haunted Troy fracks their marriage, she delivers a soul as profoundly female as Claudia McNeill, the matriarch in Raisin. She so desperately wants to believe in her man and their dowdy little nest that she takes a ton of crap, yet she won’t play victim. Davis and Washington are weathered into their roles, beyond calculation. With performances like these, we can endure the dinky pathos symbol of a fallen rose, and the scenes of Troy’s brain-damaged brother (Mykelti Williamson), who hauls around a useless trumpet. Ah, theater.  

Washington skillfully evokes a vintage Pittsburgh, hard-bitten but with lyrical touches (Mozart Savings and Loan!). It feels good to get out of that house, especially when the crowded speeches stop and we hear Little Jimmy Scott singing “Day by Day.” What feels best is Washington mastering the kind of role that most actors aspire to, but that only a veteran star can fill  supremely. A Denzel Oscar on Feb. 26 would be just.

Things to Come
Not to be confused with the visionary, British sci-fi movie of 1936, Things to Come (or L’Avenir) includes a visit to Chateaubriand’s seaside grave, and swift talk about Rousseau, Arendt, Pascal, Adorno, Schopenhauer, and a breezy, five-way conversation in French, German and English. The French heroine admits to having been a Stalinist “for three years – until Solzhenitsyn.”

No, Dottie, we’re not in Kansas, not even the University of Kansas. We’re in Paris, where every pensee works overtime and every cigarette smokes existentially. But also on the seashore, and in a lovely Alpine valley, and with Isabelle Huppert. Her Nathalie is a brilliant but open, brisk, never pompous teacher of philosophy. She struggles with being past 50 and with: Heinz (Andre Marcon), her lover of 25 years, now itchy for exit; Fabien (Roman Kolinka), her best student and an intellectual dreamboat, and her mother Yvette (Edith Scob), a dying beauty – Scob found fame back in 1959, as the disfigured daughter in Eyes Without a Face. Let’s not forget Pandora, Yvette’s fat cat, who gives Nathalie a mouse as if it were a Croix de Guerre.

The direction by Mia Hansen-Love (Father of My Children, 2009) is fluent and observant (ditto Denis Lenoir’s cinematography). The Euro-smart talk is rich, but the living is even richer, vibrant with nuances. Huppert is the movie-heating heart, entirely genuine. And never better than when, on a crowded bus, she tries to throttle pent-up tears and then, spotting the portly Heinz with another woman, starts laughing. Huppert confirms all the admiration we have ever felt for her, without milking it. Like Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep and Charlotte Rampling, she is enjoying a great senior career. (For Huppert as an aging but supple minx of mystery, see Elle in Nosh 50, by scrolling below).  

SALAD (A List)
My choices for Denzel Washington’s Ten Best Film Roles, in order of preference: Malcolm in Malcolm X, 1992; Troy Maxson in Fences, 2016; Rubin Carter in The Hurricane, 1999; Alonzo Harris in Training Day, 2001; Easy Rawlins in Devil in a Blue Dress, 1995; Pvt. Trip in Glory, 1989; Frank Lucas in American Gangster, 2007; Melvin Tolson in The Great Debaters, 2007; Dr. Davenport in Antwone Fisher, 2002, and Jake Shuttleworth in He Got Game, 1998.

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
After the dark but tasty Viennese intrigues of Carol Reed’s The Third Man gave him (as Harry Lime) a new surge of stardom, Orson Welles tried to extrapolate that success into a more baroque, international variation, Mr. Arkadin: “For a plot, he jumbled together some episodes of a radio show, vaguely inspired by the millionaire arms dealer Basil Zaharoff. Towards the end of Zaharoff’s life in 1936, the manuscript of his memoirs, widely expected to reveal some embarrassing truths, was stolen by his valet. Zaharoff paid a large sum for its recovery, and then burned it before anyone could learn more of his mysterious life.” Using that wisp as his genie, Welles again launched his magic carpet. (Quote from John Baxter’s intro to the novel Mr. Arkadin (Confidential Report).

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)

In 1972 Robert Altman brought keen interest but not piety to filming Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye, and “those who feel that he sabotaged Chandler should ponder the writer’s statement to his agent: ‘I didn’t care whether the mystery was fairly obvious, but I cared about the people, about the strange corrupt world we live in, and how any man who tried to be honest looks in the end either sentimental or plain foolish.’ Elliott Gould gave that a spin and a bounce like no other star.” (From the Elliott Gould/The Long Goodbye chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, obtainable from Amazon, Nook and Kindle).

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

Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) and her mother (Edith Scob) in Things to Come (Sundance Selects, 2016; director Mia Hansen-Love, cinematographer Denis Lenoir).

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