Friday, February 24, 2017

Nosh 54: 'The Great Wall,' 'The Salesman' & More

By David Elliott

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

APPETIZER: Reviews of The Great Wall and The Salesman

The Great Wall
Maybe to prep for the coming thrills of summer, I found myself gaping up at The Great Wall. The $150 million Chinese production is stuffed with the retro values endemic to modern, big-deal Chinese cinema, but this time that felt just fine. As throwback adventure entertainment, The Great Wall is better than anything we are likely to see strung out along the Mexican border.

Matt (The Martian) Damon must have thought, “Wow. Mars this isn’t.” The reds are much redder, as Chinese troops in stylish, color-coded uniforms defend the medieval Great Wall, a set-built and CGI masterwork. Matt’s mercenary William has come from the West to steal some “black powder” (gunpowder), even though that doesn’t give Chinese imperial forces much of an edge against Siberian swarms of  green-blooded leapin' lizards, storming the Wall (the edge proves to be William's archery skills). Bill finds time to test his buddy bond with sidekick Tovar (Pedro Pascal), to gaze hormonally upon the rising Commander Li (spitfire beauty Tian Jing), and to say things like “I have been left for dead twice.” More time is given to swarming tides of voluptuous violence. No time at all for historical or scientific accuracy, but even in China who cares?

Director Zhang Yimou carries forward the lavish pictorial talent of his past hits. A titan of stress and excess, Zhang will no doubt some day remake The Good Earth as The Great Earth: Golden Topsoil! For those of us far from young, there are fond, flickering memories of Destination Gobi, The Naked Jungle, Genghis Khan, etc. This new epic is silly but fairly thrilling. Every cliché is nicely honored, and John Myhre’s production design binds it all superbly. I came away from this with a thrilling new emotion: I want to build a Great Wall – around Trump.

The Salesman
The steady drip, drip eating away the cold wall between the U.S. and Iran has been Iranian films. Many are pearls of humanity, deft in technique and pellucid in vision (and seldom drippy). Movies like The Salesman, from writer-director Asghar Farhadi.

Emad, a Teheran schoolteacher and actor – he and his wife Rana are the leads in a new staging of Death of a Salesman – returns to their new apartment to find Rana bleeding, brutalized. She is mystified about a lustful stranger who entered as she was bathing. Emad suspects a hidden connection with the previous tenant, a sex worker, and her many clients. The childless couple, cosmopolitan and not religiously orthodox (an Audrey Hepburn portrait is on display), suddenly feel as vulnerable as kids without parents.

Rana, ashamed, refuses to see the police. Emad internalizes her fear and begins to feel a primal male rage (night after draining night, his Willy Loman is losing male status on stage). The marriage clots. Inevitably Emad will seek revenge, but forget about Liam Neeson or Charles Bronson. In a manner slow-going by U.S. action standards, Farhadi tightens the fine-grained plot with tremendous assurance and no slick melodrama. The very fine, natural work by Shahab Hosseini (Emad) and Taranieh Alidoosti (Rana) is joined by superlative Babak Karimi, who gives one of the best performances of an old, sick man I have ever seen.

Farhadi won the foreign movie Oscar in 2011 for A Separation, and this new picture is also subtle, tense, devoid of hokum and squeeze. He won’t be coming to Sunday’s Oscars (The Salesman is nominated as foreign film) because of Trump’s travel ban against Iran and six other Islamic countries. If our Maximum Leader could view just three or four of the best, deeply humane Iranian films from recent decades, he might be less prone to snarl us into conflict with Iran. Well, no – he’d fall asleep from boredom, or start tweeting. Such a big man, such a tweety bird.

SALAD (A List)
Ten Absorbing American or Brit Movies Set in China, in order of arrival (director, year): The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Frank Capra, 1933), The General Died at Dawn (Lewis Milestone, 1936), The Good Earth (Sidney Franklin, 1937), The Shanghai Gesture (Joseph von Sternberg, 1941), The Left Hand of God (Edward Dmytryk, 1955), The World of Suzie Wong (Richard Quine, 1960), Mulan (Disney: Bancroft and Cook, 1998), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000), The White Countess (James Ivory, 2005) and The Painted Veil (John Curran, 2006). The retro worst was Blood Alley with John Wayne (Bill Wellman, 1955).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Peter Bogdanovich gave his opinion on why Citizen Kane and its lordly citizen maintain their grip: “All (of Welles’s) passions – theater, magic, circus, radio, painting, literature – suddenly fused into one. This may explain why to so many people, even those who’ve seen Welles’s other pictures (not so many have, actually), Kane remains the favorite. It is not his best film – either stylistically or in the depth of his vision – but its aura is the most romantic (thanks to) the initial courtship of the artist with his art.” (From This Is Orson Welles, by Welles and Bogdanovich. My opinion: It is his greatest work, but not by a mile.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Quentin Tarantino knew that Jackie Brown (1997) was a big creative leap: “Miramax optioned three Elmore Leonard novels for Tarantino, who almost passed on Rum Punch. Once he saw its riches, as he told me in an interview, ‘I did what I wanted with it. Oh, the full-out fans, the kind who start Pulp Fiction Web sites … Jackie was not necessarily for them.’ He wanted ‘a more mature character study. I’m a writer, most of all.’ As a teen he had loved Leonard’s work so much that he was nailed for shoplifting a paperback, and he thought that ‘when I become a director I can see every other movie I do being an Elmore Leonard novel.” That didn’t happen, but he made a great one. (From the Pam Grier/ Jackie Brown 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.

James Whitmore and Sterling Hayden face hard choices in The Asphalt Jungle (MGM, 1950; director John Huston, cinematographer Harold Rosson).

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