Thursday, June 15, 2017

Nosh 68: 'Chasing Trane,' 'Obit' & More

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


APPETIZER: Reviews of Chasing Trane and Obit      
Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary
The horn seems to be listening to an inner monolog unlimited by time, location or audience. And the player is bound to his horn in soulful embrace. It is John Coltrane, on the alto or tenor sax, climbing the peaks of “A Love Supreme,” or cool-crooning “It Never Entered My Mind,” or stream-riffing his joyful, unexpected hit, “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music.

John Scheinfeld’s Chasing Trane starts off with cosmic graphics of stellar nebulae. And a giddy voice compares Coltrane to Beethoven and Shakespeare. Not even in the field of jazz enthusiasm, where hyperbole wails, should a great artist be lauded with that jive. But the documentary backs up most of its rhetoric. We see a tongue-tied kid up from Southern poverty and a broken home, learning his “chops” from Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, getting fired from Davis’s great ’50s quartet for heroin-addicted fizzles, climbing back with help from Thelonious Monk, killing his habit “cold turkey,” finding a new parity (and purity) with Miles, then starting his own group that pushed the edge beyond bop into the realm of Trane (some of the later experiments sound oral-compulsive, and reminded me of Aldous Huxley’s remark that Jackon Pollock’s drip paintings were like carpeting that “could go on forever”).

I don’t think Scheinfeld quite finds the secretive depths of Charlotte Zwerin’s great documentary Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser. But, with a lot of good clips and graphics, and testimonies of love from Wayne Shorter, Wynton Marsalis, McCoy Tyner and other veterans (and family members, ever-giddy Cornel West, ex-Prez Bill Clinton and a delightful Japanese fanatic), we hear some of the loveliest, most urgently sincere music ever put on film. The muse here is growth. Coltrane went from zealot to mess-up, then from pioneer to prophet, finding grace notes of a lyrical faith in his message of sound. He became a superb musician and a deeply admirable man. The combination is rare in jazz, or any art.

Obit
Only in Obit can you find a posthumous nod to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev right near a savvy tribute to Robert T. James, inventor of the Slinky. This is the second fine documentary spawned in recent years by the New York Times. In 2010 came Bill Cunningham New York, a delightful tribute to the paper’s beloved, bicycling photographer of street fashion and couture shows (Bill’s obit ran last year, on June 25). Vanessa Gould’s film about the writers and editors of the obituary section is more house-bound, much less street. But it expands beyond insider talk in Times offices by using the paper’s astonishing photo library, and life-reviving films of the famous or now largely forgotten dead.

In olden times up to 30 people worked in the paper’s “morgue.” The vast data collection (much of it envelopes for paper clippings) is now served only by Jeff Roth, keeper of the pre-digital memory of the “paper of record.”  Sardonically perusing his  crammed empire of filing cabinets, Roth is upset on finding that the clips packet on Gertrude Berg, the early TV and radio actress, was mis-filed (Gertrude would have chuckled). We hear from writers talking about deadlines (one had four hours to sum up Michael Jackson), or fretting about finding sources, or missing the clatter and zing of typewriters (an editor keeps her old Royal on hand). Some muse, with a mix of pride and pathos, that they are small cogs of closure for larger lives. No longer must their writings be starchy or pious, but decorum still applies and PC is a tireless buzz-fly.

I wish the film followed from start to finish the full obit path of a modern, highly resonant person (George Carlin? Bill Buckley? Chuck Berry?). An entirely worthy revival is Elinor Smith, a once-famous teen “aviatrix.” The Times prepared an obituary “advance” on the girlish sky-climber in 1931. It came into good use when Smith died at 98 in 2010. Her obit took flight.     

SALAD (A List)
Twelve Ace Jazz Movies, in order of arrival: Satchmo the Great (Murrow/Friendly, 1956), Jazz on a Summer’s Day (Bert Stern, 1959), All Night Long (Basil Dearden, 1962), Round Midnight (Bertrand Tavernier, 1986), Kansas City (Robert Altman, 1986), Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser (Charlotte Zwerin, 1988), Let’s Get Lost (Bruce Weber, 1989), Mo’ Better Blues (Spike Lee, 1990), A Great Day in Harlem (Jean Bach, 1994), Buena Vista Social Club (Wim Wenders, 1999), Sweet and Lowdown (Woody Allen, 1999) and Miles Ahead (Don Cheadle, 2015).          

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
No one else topped off a fading marriage like Orson Welles, directing his almost-ex Rita Hayworth in 1946 for The Lady From Shanghai: “Some scenes (outside Acapulco) were filmed near a crocodile-infested river; in a scene where Rita dives into the ocean from Morro Rock, the rock had to be scraped of poisonous barnacles, and a Mexican swimming champ armed with a spear had to continually swim near Rita to warn off deadly barracudas in the water. Rita could not take the heat (and) at least once actually collapsed.” Despite the ordeal, she and Orson remained on remarkably cordial terms after divorcing. (Quote from Frank Brady’s Citizen Welles).

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Robert Altman’s free-flying methods sometimes threw players off stride, even comedy wizard Lily Tomlin in Nashville. She recalled the “scene in the café when Keith (Carradine) is singing, you did not know where the camera was.” Later she “saw how they shot it and they were moving past the other women and pushing it on me, and my eyes were in shadow and I thought, I’ve failed this. I’ve failed this really great moment.” She went home in tears, but her Linnea was superb work. (From the Elliott Gould/The Long Goodbye 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.



Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) mulls his creative dilemma in (Embassy Pictures, 1963; director Federico Fellini, cinematographer Gianni di Venanzo.)

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Sunday, June 11, 2017

Nosh 67: 'A Quiet Passion' & More

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


APPETIZER: Review of A Quiet Passion
Uneasy lies the crown of thorns on a lonesome spinster’s head, and seeing the crown of Emily Dickinson’s strange, reclusive life pass from Julie Harris (The Belle of Amherst) to Cynthia Nixon in A Quiet Passion is a moving transfer. Harris remains great, but there is a chance – as delicate as the almost molecular tension of one thought glancing off another in a Dickinson poem – that Nixon’s Emily is a tad touch greater.

Praise also for director and writer Terence Davies, and photographer Florian Hoffmeister. Perhaps it required the very British Davies (The Long Day Closes) to so totally inhabit the Dickinson home in Amherst, Mass. (exteriors are the real home, interiors were shot in Flanders). Davies is best known for nostalgic but not sappy explorations of his mid-20th century youth in Liverpool, stylized as urgent reveries of memory, of old songs and movies.

His feeling for 19th century New England feels native, rooted in the slowness of clock-tick time, the cherished intimacy of live music, the engulfing, neck-tight clothing, the gentle elisions from window sunlight to flickering candles to glowing lamps. All beautifully filmed. Late at night Emily finds her glory time, writing verse by lamplight while others sleep.

Those others are crucial. Maybe not since Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962) have we had a film family this nuclear, concentrated and self-defined. The Dickinsons speak with militant elocution and witty asperity, like Jane Austen dipped in Yankee molasses and vinegar. Their gossiping, pre-media world treats smart opinion as entertainment, but when the scarcely published Emily scorns the popular Longfellow, she is not “funning.”

Sex is so corseted that we can hear its secret buttons popping, in talks that crackle with innuendo. Church religion hovers over people like a cosmic raven – one hazy wing is salvation, the darker, pressing one is death. Intimate with God in her cheeky way, plain Emily (she calls herself “a kangaroo”) enjoys affronting her strict, pious father (Keith Carradine’s eyes, framed by muttonchops, burn). And yet their love is real, at heart profound.

Mostly this is a film of women, almost amber-sealed in a patriarchal world. Vividly present are Emily’s sweetly melancholy mother (Joanna Bacon) and her loyal, sensible sister, Vinnie (superb Jennifer Ehle). Nixon loses some scenes to Catherine Bailey as a visiting, impudent charmer (“I’m irresistible, everyone says so”), a ball of sass like Anne Baxter’s Lucy in The Magnificent Ambersons. Emily’s feminist barbs, wry but bare-knuckled, thrill the more prudent Vinnie. The era’s epic crisis, the Civil War, briefly breaks the family spell. Davies folds it into battle flags and poignant, tinted photos of the dead. This is the second great movie about a poet within months, following Jim Jarmusch's Paterson.

That the film is never museum-bound by daguerreotype decorum and hushed candlelight is largely due to Nixon (Emma Bell is quite fine as young Emily). Wit and wonder, curiosity and longing are in Nixon’s face, aging as family losses multiply and her worsening isolation reveals neurotic envy. Illness (Bright’s disease) is depicted with stunning immediacy. Surely flights of feminine angels sang her to her rest. And her poems still spark, like fireflies, in countless minds.        

SALAD (A List)
Twelve Excellent Performances as Famous Writers:
Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo in Trumbo, Michael Gambon as Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Gambler, Ben Gazzara as Serking (Charles Bukowski) in Tales of Ordinary Madness, Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst, John Hurt as Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant, Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in The Hours, Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe in Genius, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dorothy Parker in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Helen Mirren as Rand in The Passion of Ayn Rand, Robert Morley as Wilde in Oscar Wilde, Christopher Plummer as Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station, Mary Steenburgen as Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in Cross Creek, and Ben Whishaw as John Keats in Bright Star.                            

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Talent-blazing Orson Welles almost caused an RKO soundstage conflagration, while filming the furnace burn of the Rosebud sled for Citizen Kane: “When Orson had nearly exhausted his supply of sleds, the doors swung open and in flew the fire fighters, summoned because an inadequate flue had caused a fire on the roof. When one of the men asked (actor) Paul Stewart who Orson was, and Stewart told him, the fireman replied, ‘It figures!’ – a sarcastic reference to the (1938) Martian radio hoax.” (From Barbara Leaming’s Orson Welles). 

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“The New (Kafka) Normality of Orson Welles’s The Trial echoes Piranesi’s famous prison etchings, with their ‘staircases that lead nowhere, vaults that support nothing but their own weight and enclose vast spaces that are never truly rooms, but only anterooms, lumber rooms, vestibules, outhouses’ (Aldous Huxley). In a ruined chamber, two mute thugs evoke countless Mafia, KGB and Gestapo brutes.” (From the Anthony Perkins/The Trial chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle).

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



Charles Serking (Ben Gazzara) spots his sexy siren (Ornella Muti) in Tales of Ordinary Madness (Italy-U.S., 1981; director Marco Ferreri, cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli).

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Friday, June 2, 2017

Nosh 66: 'Norman,' 'Chuck' & More

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



APPETIZER: Reviews of Norman and Chuck

Norman
The young Richard Gere often seemed smug in his chiseled beauty, as if admiring a gilded poster of himself. But the dream hunk had a slightly comical, humanizing “flaw”: his rabbit-tooth smile. He has grown into that smile, into its dental hints of playful character. The beauty has rusted, the talent has ripened, the bunny smile endures. In maturity Gere has done excellent work in Dr. T and the Women, Chicago, The Hoax, Arbitrage and Time Out of Mind

Now Norman – his best? Norman Oppenheimer lives to schmooze and wheedle and juice deals. “You’re like a drowning man waving at an ocean liner,” says a top-connection New Yorker, whom Norman uses to worm into the high ranks of hustle. “But I’m a good swimmer,” answers Norman in his nice, nudging way. He is always walking, talking, cell-phoning, offering his card (“Oppenheimer Strategies”). He’s no crook, but big-deal people sense something dubious and are puzzled by his glom-on presence. With small elements of Richard Dreyfuss’s Duddy Kravitz, Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin and Woody Allen’s Zelig, Gere geared up for this most with his gabby con artist Clifford Irving in The Hoax.

Norman’s core family is gone. Surviving relatives avoid him as a dud, a wannabe macher. He seems to live in his big camel-hair coat – we never see his dwelling space. Not to spill the beans here, but the plot spring is Norman’s twisty effort to “play” a visiting Israeli politician (appealing, entirely credible Lior Ashkenazi). This involves a pair of shoes – $1,200 shoes! They must have Astaire taps, because soon, against all odds, Norm is in the big game.

Writer-director Joseph Cedar (a New York-born Israeli) reveals a hip, insider angle of Jewish Manhattan, Israeli-American relations, money in politics, the power hooks of religion and family. Norman’s good but needy rabbi is amusingly played by Steve Buscemi, and as a bigshot Harris Yulin gets off a great line: “Rabbi Blumenthal is not my fucking problem!” Also swell are Michael Sheen and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Jun Miyako wrote a blithe score (jazz, klezmer). Cinematographer Yaron Scharf pulls off visual marvels, pairing some scenes wittily. Fun but serious, the story has a hungry, often pensive urgency. Gere is subtle, not a Woody Allen knockoff. For all his guff and bluff, Norman is a mensch. The aging hustler (his hair tries for boyish bangs) wants to join the action, maybe even pull off a mitzvah (good deed), and he doesn’t nag our empathy. Go ahead, love the guy. Give the rabbit a carrot.    

Chuck
Definitely not a film about Charles de Gaulle, Chuck concerns boxer turned “entertainer” Chuck Wepner (Liev Schreiber). The “Bleeder from Bayonne” (N.J.) had two big moments in the ’70s. He went almost a full 15 rounds against Muhammad Ali, and when the bloodied Wepner floored him, the champ came back like a furious cyclone. Then Wepner saw himself as the inspiration for Rocky Balboa, Sly Stallone’s iconic movie Palooka. He milked that, charming and then irritating the actor (eventually there was a money settlement). Philippe Falardeau’s movie is a vintage treasury of Jersey slob times: the old tunes, the awful outfits, goombahs, bimbos, disco, coke addiction, broken family life, even a bear Chuck faces in the ring. The KO punch that really hits, harder than Ali, comes from his fed-up wife Phyliss: “You stink, Chuck.”  

Chuck doesn’t stink. Enjoyably unpretentious, it avoids the glazed candy corn of Rocky and the solemn, operatic heft of Raging Bull. Schreiber, beefed-up, plays Wepner as no brain, yet also no dummy. He’s a decently fallible guy making a strange living. Not squeezing pathos, Schreiber is more credible as this hard-hauler than he was as Orson Welles in RKO 481. The cast is a pack of sharp razors: Elisabeth Moss (Phyliss), Naomi Watts (really razored as girlfriend Linda), Ron Perlman (Chuck’s manager), Pooch Hall (Ali) and Michael Rapaport (Chuck’s brother – I’d guess that Rapaport will, within ten years, be playing Donald Trump). There is an overstated scene at a school, and one (not four) bows to Requiem for a Heavyweight would have been enough. The fights (real and faked) are absorbing, and if you don’t root for Chuck you’d better exit early. Go ahead, love the guy. Give the gorilla a banana.

SALAD (A List)
In my opinion, Richard Gere’s Ten Finest Roles so far:
Norman Oppenheimer (Norman, 2017), Dr. T (Dr. T and the Women, 2000), Clifford Irving (The Hoax, 2006), Billy Flynn (Chicago, 2002), Jack Moore (Red Corner, 1997), Robert Miller (Arbitrage, 2012), Edward Lewis (Pretty Woman, 1990), Paul Shepherdson (The Double, 2011), Zack Mayo (An Officer and a Gentleman, 1982), Dixie Dwyer (The Cotton Club, 1984).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Like Marlon Brando, 21, dazzling Tennessee Williams with his solo read-through of A Streetcar Named Desire (after fixing Williams’s beach cottage toilet!), Orson Welles at 19 stunned author Archibald MacLeish with an un-prepped reading of the blank-verse play Panic: “MacLeish was skeptical about the young actor (and then) Orson started with (the most) difficult scene: his breakdown, the climax of the play … MacLeish stared in disbelief as Orson read the lines, the actor’s voice revealed in all its ‘infinite delicacy and brutally devastating power.’ (Next) Orson started over on page one, reading in his mellifluous tones for the next hour and a half, speaking not only (his) dialog but the lines of all the other two dozen roles and even the Greek chorus. His few privileged listeners were spellbound.” Alas, Panic had topical appeal and a short run. (Quote from Patrick McGilligan’s great Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
No movie haunts Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984) more deeply than one of my childhood favorites, John Ford’s The Searchers: “In 1956 The Searchers claimed me with Winton Hoch’s first shot: a door opening on Monument Valley, the moment that ‘permeates all of Wenders’s films’ (Alexander Graf). Ethan (John Wayne) is, like Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), a terse loner embedded in rage. Travis’s bid for redemption is his son. Ethan must save himself by not killing his niece (Natalie Wood), abducted by Indians. Lean, brooding Stanton was no Wayne, and that icon could never have inhabited Travis, but as searchers they are spiritual siblings.” (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.



Richard Gere and Renee Zellweger flash some vintage moxie in Chicago (Miramax, 2002; director Rob Marshall, cinematographer Dion Beebe).

For previous Noshes, scroll below