Thursday, May 11, 2017

Nosh 64: 'Their Finest,' 'Colossal' & More

By David Elliott

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

APPETIZER: Reviews of Their Finest and Colossal

Their Finest
Pleasure in Their Finest (and I certainly had some) relies on a triple nostalgia: for Britain’s heroic Blitz years of 1940 and ’41, for the plucky patriotism of English films at that time, and for the humane coziness that  English movies brought to a pitch of charm and wit, mainly in the Ealing  pictures after the war. Made with high craft by Lone Scherfig, it’s about a  propaganda film patched together for fast release after the Dunkirk rescue. That operation saved the neck of Britain’s almost cooked goose from Hitler’s army, inspiring some great Churchill rhetoric and this movie (and Christopher Nolan’s massive Dunkirk, coming in July). Using an English beach, fake boats, retro effects and a corny script (but isn’t Casablanca fairly corny also?), Scherfig still gives us a fine sense of that amazing, frightening time on the “sceptr’d isle.”

No Churchill (just posters), but here is Jeremy Irons as a war minister, knocking off a chunk of Henry V to rally the filmers. He also saddles them with the need for a gung-ho Yank hero, a volunteer pilot who can’t act. This doubles the stress of the young scripting team, played by Gemma Arterton and Sam Claflin (romance beckons, of course). Helping the American empowers snappish old pro Ambrose (Bill Nighy), who recovers the zip that once gave him dash as a matinee idol. Has Nighy ever given a bad performance? Or one not graced by his sly, deft, mildly dotty finesse? As this vain but touchingly committed ham, he has the sort of scene-lifting fun that Peter O’Toole bestowed on My Favorite Year.

Scherfig made a star of young Carey Mulligan with another look-back story,  An Education. He won’t do the same for Arterton, with her smaller luster, yet she is game, pretty and heartfelt. In the final quarter there is a small plot shock, but Their Finest can, like Britain, take it. Though a comedy in its best tactics, the film has a good strategic edge: we sense the bombs, the blood, the personal losses. And many lines crackle (even the weird “spawning spontaneously in the sawdust”). Dunkirk will find its own way to the famous beaches, no doubt closer to Joe Wright’s Atonement and Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.

There endures a certain resentment of Anne Hathaway. Envy? She does resemble Audrey Hepburn plus Shakespeare’s dream of a perfect rose. Maybe it’s the contrast with her slightly tinny, American voice, or because her talent doesn’t always rise to her beauty. Cast those doubts away for Colossal.

As screw-up Gloria, Hathaway is funny and fetching and often goofy-drunk. Her British lover (Dan Stevens, the long-lamented Matthew Crawley of Downton Abbey) kicks her out of his swank Manhattan digs, so she returns, tail dragging, to her hometown. There the hub of interest is a bar run by Gloria’s childhood pal, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis, who seems to be reaching for an improbable convergence of Russell Crowe and Paul Giamatti).

The director, finely named Nacho Vigalondo, wrote a script that also seems to drink a lot. The “plot” involves Gloria’s startling, hungover insight that she has a behavior-controlling brain link with a huge monster lizard terrorizing Seoul, South Korea (as in old Godzilla days). Down at their past playground, Oscar also gets into trans-Pacific telepathy. Not even the combined gifts of James Joyce and Ray Bradbury could find a tight narrative thread, but that barely matters.

The strangeness, as sitcomical Americana intersects Korean panic mobs (maybe a bit too topical right now, in the age of Kim Jong-Trump), makes Colossal one of those oddities you won’t forget – movies like Eat the Peach, Trees Lounge, Bubba Ho-Tep, The Plot Against Harry, Tremors, Withnail and I, Slow West, Wise Blood, Chan Is Missing, O’Horten and Whiskey Galore. And I’ve never liked Hathaway quite this much before.

SALAD (A List)
Twelve Outstanding British WWII Movies ranked by quality, with director: Fires Were Started (Humphrey Jennings), The Life and Death of Col. Blimp (Michael Powell), The Purple Plain (Robert Parrish), 49th Parallel (a.k.a. The Invaders; Michael Powell), Hope and Glory (John Boorman), Atonement (Joe Wright), In Which We Serve (Noel Coward, David Lean), The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean), One of Our Aircraft is Missing (Michael Powell), The Cruel Sea (Charles Frend), The Dam Busters (Michael Anderson) and The Cockleshell Heroes (José Ferrer).  

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
At the grand “Night of 100 Stars” at Radio City Music Hall in 1982, singer Tony Bennett felt the jitters before going on, but “Orson Welles was backstage, and he stood there smoking a big cigar and staring at me. He could tell that I was having a case of the butterflies, and with perfect grace he said to me, ‘I go to every party at Sinatra’s house, and he plays nothing but Tony Bennett records,’ Just at that moment the announcer said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Tony Bennett!’ Orson knew exactly what to say to help me get through. No wonder he was a great director.” (From Tony Bennett’s memoir The Good Life).    

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“Gulley Jimson (in The Horse’s Mouth) has a sexual forwardness rare for Alec (Guinness). He had slyly spoofed the machismo of military men, taking it to a high level in Bridge on the River Kwai and Tunes of Glory. He admired alpha-male friends like Jack Hawkins, Bill Holden and Harry Andrews, and envied Richard Burton’s stellar wallop. Piers Paul Read’s biography suggests a closeted gay or bi impulse but never finds the closet key. Possibly Alec didn’t either (and had a strong marriage).” (From the Alec Guinness/The Horse’s Mouth 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.

Keira Knightley in a peaceful moment of Atonement (Focus Features, 2007; director Joe Wright, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey).

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