Thursday, July 27, 2017

Noh 73: 'Dunkirk' & More

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

APPETIZER: Review of Dunkirk

Dunkirk is a French port city just south of the Belgian border. From May 24 to June 4, 1940, it was the center less of a battle than a disaster, one converted by British luck, pluck and propaganda into a national resurrection. Nearly 400,000 men were cornered by German forces, and for obscure reasons Hitler held back his Panzers (probably for later Blitzkrieg-ing in central France). Churchill committed only a fraction of the Royal Navy and RAF, both precious for the coming Battle of Britain. About 338k of the 400,000 were rescued (though many of the French were later repatriated). Their saviors were often small, civilian vessels, voluntarily crossing the Channel. It was like Agincourt minus arrows, but more flags.

Much of the context remains a shade vague in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. First known for clever, conceptual films (Following, Memento, Inception), then the box office champ The Dark Knight, Nolan wrote and directed this somewhat conceptual but also docu-granular war saga. It starts with a lost British soldier joining the forces massed on the beach. First he goes to a dune and squats (must I draw a picture?). His name is Tommy (British troops were called Tommies in WWI). He and the other men are caught in grim suspense, then panic, as German planes strafe and bomb. Most of the movie is about small groups deep in harm’s way. The faces are movingly real, but their identities (even Tom Hardy’s) are oddly generic. Sound effects (and accents) are so potent that much of the speech becomes hard to follow.

Shot with brilliantly sharp film, not digitally, and fully alert to all issues of survival, this is not one of those old war epics jammed with famous stars. Subbing for all the gone Sirs is Sir Kenneth Branagh as a naval commander. Yes, the former Henry V is back in France (his model as Mr. Stiff Upper Lip must be Noel Coward in In Which We Serve). Nolan’s spotlight hero is a doughty yacht captain, played by Mark Rylance as Britain’s Indomitable Spirit. Between action storms we get tense, meditative pauses, and can ponder why the Brits make so many movies about their disasters and ordeals. Like A Bridge Too Far, The Malta Story, Fires Were Started, In Which We Serve, Bridge on the River Kwai, Zulu, The Cruel Sea, Khartoum and The Charge of the Light Brigade.

Though most attentive to fierce desperation, Nolan reaches for some heroics. When the rescue fleet of little boats appears on the horizon, someone asks Branagh what it is. With moist eyes he answers “Home,” and the score surges with the Nimrod theme of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. There is plenty of air combat, as bold RAF pilots shoot down nasty Heinkels (the Germans remain faceless terrors). Most movingly to me, an English pilot is shot down, glides his expiring plane elegantly to the beach, and then sets it on fire – up yours, Adolf!

Dunkirk is often too scary, or just noisy, to be quite exciting or stirring. The big budget appears to skimp on the gallant rescue fleet, with terse and gracious Rylance made to carry too much emblematic weight as the yacht skipper. Nolan achieves moments of nerve-racking realism, yet without challenging film’s great battle episodes (Welles’s Chimes at Midnight, Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron, Klimov’s Come and See, Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, Branagh's Henry V, Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Kurosawa’s Ran and Seven Samurai – each a stylized stunner). Ten years ago we went to this beach with powerful brevity, in the Dunkirk sequence of Joe Wright’s Atonement. Back we go. Keep calm and carry on.   

SALAD (A List)
Ace Performances in British WWII Movies:
Laurence Olivier in The 49th Parallel, 1941; Noel Coward in In Which We Serve, 1942; Roger Livesey in The Life and Death of Col. Blimp, 1943; Michael Redgrave in The Captive Heart, 1946; James Mason in Five Fingers (Code Name Cicero), 1952; Jack Hawkins in The Cruel Sea, 1953; Robert Newton in The Desert Rats, 1953; Gregory Peck in The Purple Plain, 1954; Alec Guinness in The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957; Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun, 1987; Sarah Miles in Hope and Glory, 1987; Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche in The English Patient, 1996.
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Often undervalued in shaping Orson Welles as one-man extravaganza is a tradition long preceding radio and movies, that of the “great actor-managers in the twilight of their lifelong tours. (Orson had) been privileged to (see and) shake the hands of more than a few. He devoured books about David Garrick, Henry Irving, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Sir Ben Greet, who did it all: played leads, designed the sets, lighting and costumes, staged and produced … (the teen) was talking about presiding over his own repertory troupe.” And so he did, by 22. (Quote from Patrick McGilligan’s fine Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
A tribute: “In Chicago, war veteran and cheerful cinephile Bruce Trinz (1917-2011) owned and ran the Clark Theater, where I ushered. Each day’s new double-bill lured sunrise pilgrims, tired shoppers, students, buffs, loners, daters, seniors, cruisers, nighthawks. For each picture Bruce wrote a rhymed couplet, like this one for Cagney’s White Heat: ‘A grim human bomb/ Who worshipped his mom.” (Quote from Intro to my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, obtainable from Amazon, Nook, Kindle.)

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

Even Peter Lorre is stunned, in The Beast With Five Fingers (Warner Bros., 1946; director Robert Florey, cinematographer Wesley Anderson).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Nosh 72: 'The Big Sick,' The Exception' & More

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

APPETIZER: Reviews of The Big Sick and The Exception

The Big Sick
As the lead in The Big Sick, comedian Kumail Nanjiani tries to impress a date with his movie taste: The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Night of the Living Dead … But I’d bet that star and co-writer Nanjiani has a deeper source in his head: Buster Keaton, the funniest stone-face, the silent king of deadpan. As a modern comic and actor, Nanjiani relies on words as Buster didn’t, but he also has a watchful stillness, a shy gravity, a gift for pauses and gulpy silences. They resonate his gags, and let us peer into the thinker (and feeler) behind them.

Kumail, as everyone calls him, is an aspiring Chicago stand-up, and Michael Showalter’s movie heads back often to the club, the funny buddies, the sitcom rhythms. My response: move on (even Robert De Niro did it, recently, in The Comedian). But as the title implies, The Big Sick is not all laffs. The club stuff is periodic stress relief. So is Kumail’s émigré family, trying to marry him to a nice, Muslim, Pakistani woman (that’s funny, much like My Big Fat Greek Wedding). More stressed, yet also funny, are the parents of his new, very American girl: experts Ray Romano, as the big, good shlub of a dad, and Holly Hunter as her mom (decades after Raising Arizona, Hunter still has the best fem-twang in the biz, and the timing of her scenes with Kumail is perfection).

I offer the “c” word: coma. Pale, bird-cute Emily (Zoe Kazan), Kumail’s new squeeze, is dear, funny and charming.As Kumail is good at guilty confessions, I confide one myself. When an infection puts Emily into the hospital, then a coma, I felt: good, a break from the rock-drill undertone of her voice. Emily rebounds after much suspense, heartache and medical consultation. You might see the finish coming (no, not death or paralysis), yet it is timed so that it almost sneaks up on us.

The movie has filler, like the riff between Emily’s parents. But Nanjiani hubs the fine cast, and there are very funny lines, from “He’s like Daniel Day-Lewis, except he sucks,” to the way Hunter, sauced, dribbles “I like wine because of the buzz.” Co-written by Nanjiani’s wife Emily Gordon, this is not a mere comic’s film, or a rom-com, or a TV pilot looking for a slot. The Big Sick is enough of a big deal, modestly, to be a winner.

The Exception
Half a century after his Anglo-Austrian accent as Capt. Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, here is Christopher Plummer at 82, rumbling an Anglo-Prussian accent in The Exception. Alas, no singing kids, no Alps, no edelweiss. Plummer is Kaiser Wilhelm II, living in dull Dutch exile. France has just fallen to Hitler (1940), and Wilhelm’s snobbish disdain for Adolf marches in goosestep with his dream that maybe, with luck, he will again rule Deutschland! Leaving Hitler as what? Court painter? Keeper of the beer steins? The fantasy of return fixates Wilhelm’s wife, played by Janet McTeer as a wax echo of old Helen Hayes in Anastasia.

A bull-built German soldier, Capt. Brandt (Jai Courtney), is installed by the Nazis to “protect” Wilhelm, by spying on him. He develops a Blitzkrieg lust for a Dutch Jewish maid, Mieke (Lily James). His inner doubts about the Fuhrer delight the sexy British spy in her, and they rut with fierce solidarity. Cooler episodes feature the imperial feeding of ducks, and old memories served like rare wine (“remember, at four he bit the Prince of Wales in the leg!”). As usual the Nazi uniforms are superb, but the Kaiser’s wardrobe is a Reich unto himself.  

Evil enters the royal chateau as S.S. devil Heinrich Himmler, acted by Eddie Marsan as a small, frigid, poisonous turd. Marsan is terrific, and Plummer remains fairly plummy. Aussie-born Courtney’s machismo is often subtle. But then the plot fabric unravels into a flying hairball of gee-wiz, what-the-hell und Mein Gott! At some point between the schnitzel and the schnapps, the script fell dead from indigestion.

SALAD (A List)

Christopher Plummer’s Best Ten Filmed Roles (my choice): Walt Murdoch in Wind Across the Everglades, 1958; Commodus in Fall of the Roman Empire, 1964; Atahualpa in The Royal Hunt of the Sun, 1969; Herod Antipas in Jesus of Nazareth, 1977; Harry Reikle in The Silent Partner, 1979; Vladimir Nabokov in Nabokov on Kafka, 1989; Abakumov in The First Circle, 1992; Mike Wallace in The Insider, 1999; Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station, 2009, and John Barrymore in Barrymore, 2011. 

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Orson’s postwar production of Macbeth, first on stage (in Utah!) then filmed low-budget, had a religious subtext: “The main point is the struggle between the old and new religions. I saw the witches as representing Druidical pagan religion, repressed by Christianity … that’s why the screen is choked with Celtic crosses. The witches are the priestesses. I only wish I hadn’t failed so badly with the witches themselves. They were lousy.” (Welles to Peter Bogdanovich, This Is Orson Welles.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“Speed Levitch, circa 1996, fills the frame: his arrest mug, wide-eyed, cornered, Raskolnikovian. ‘I was runnin’ hard at that time,’ he recalls, ‘the anti-cruise was breathing down my neck … It never occurred to them that I am running from the anti-cruise every day! And I’m gonna keep running!” (From the Timothy Levitch/The Cruise chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, obtainable via Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)

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


Atahualpa (Christopher Plummer) stands in buff majesty before Pizarro (Robert Shaw) in The Royal Hunt of the Sun (National General, 1969; director Irving Lerner, cinematographer Roger Barlow).

For previous Noshes, scroll below. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Nosh 71: 'The Beguiled,' 'The Hero' & More

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

APPETIZER: Reviews of The Beguiled and The Hero

The Beguiled
What do I recall of Don Siegel’s The Beguiled in 1971, my first full year as a film critic? I remember Clint Eastwood in one of his early efforts to actually act, as the wounded Union soldier at a Dixie women’s school run by Geraldine Page, who lady-lords over him and the smoldering (for Clint) girls. I remember some Southern flavoring of erotic tension, ripening into sadism. But mostly it’s vague – more misty than Play Misty For Me (same year, Eastwood directing) with Clint as the cool DJ fending off a crazy lover (Jessica Walter) straight from bachelor hell.

Now Sofia Coppola re-makes The Beguiled, her script modestly rehabbing the original by Albert Maltz (fabled blacklist victim) and novelist Thomas Cullinan. Colin Farrell is the leg-wounded Yank, McBurney, found bleeding by an academy girl. There are five students, plus headmistress Nicole Kidman and teacher Kirsten Dunst (the men are off serving Gen. Lee, the slaves have fled). The soldier’s wound is seen more viscerally than in 1971, if not 1864.

Mainly Coppola lays on her proven skill with female options and detailed atmosphere. Some images recall old photos by Julia Cameron and Clarence J. Laughlin. The school’s white Corinthian columns seem the last, imperiled totems of a racist nation, dying like the slave empires of Greece and Rome. The females wear lovely white, and their maidenly Christian piety (prayers, candles) is foreplay for lust.

As long as it is subtle and suspenseful, the new Beguiled is good work. Farrell radiates sly Irish charm as each fem (even the girls) schemes for his attentions. But then – the signal is Kidman barking “Bring me the anatomy book!” – it jolts into Dixie gothic gumbo: mutilation, rape, and Farrell in a manly storm of bad acting. We’re back on the plantation veranda with James Mason in Mandingo as he sips a mint julep, fondles a whip, and awaits his dear friend Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III.   

The Hero
With his flowing silver hair, droop moustache and voice of a Marlboro cave man, Sam Elliott is less icon than logo. He’s an Old West brand, as potent as bull semen (and played a fine, hateful villain on TV’s Justified). In The Hero he is Lee Hayden, 71, a fading Western star. There are no movies to ride, and the golden voice is bored, recording a radio pitch for Lone Star BBQ sauce. Lee’s cancer (revealed early) promises no remission. No John Wayne “big C” bravado from Lee. But two good things happen: He gets a career award from a nostalgia group, and he meets a woman.

Savvy Charlotte (Laura Prepon) seems to be the sex sunset he needs, a hip-as-now wow, Bacall to his Bogart. Buzzed on desire, drink and her gift of “fairy powder,” Lee gives a unique acceptance speech, which goes viral. But then Charlotte (really director Brett Haley’s script) sinks it all with a crass, public faux-pas. Neither the movie nor the romance recover. You can’t heal a humiliation so wounding with Hallmark chatter about death, lovely shots of waves bubbling at the beach, or even Charlotte’s tender verse from Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Solid footnotes are Katharine Ross as Lee’s ex-wife, Krysten Ritter as his angry daughter, and Nick Offerman as a ganja-sharing, Buster Keaton-loving pal. Elliott does heartfelt underplaying as the old saddle champ haunted by his one mythic movie. In flashback it looks generic, like a TV dream of a weed trip fantasy. Any bid for Elliott’s late-career Oscar had better come with terrific BBQ sauce and a fat Jamaican spliff.

SALAD (A List)
Major Dixie Females of Film: Baby Doll (Carroll Baker, Baby Doll), Blanche (Vivien Leigh, A Streetcar Named Desire), Carrie (Geraldine Page, The Trip to Bountiful), Clara (Joanne Woodward, The Long Hot Summer), Clio (Ingrid Bergman, Saratoga Trunk), Daisy (Jessica Tandy, Driving Miss Daisy), Ella (Jo Van Fleet, Wild River), Frankie (Julie Harris, The Member of the Wedding), Julie (Bette Davis, Jezebel), Lady (Anna Magnani, The Fugitive Kind), Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Marjorie (Mary Steenbergen, Cross Creek), Minny (Olivia  Spencer, The Help), Pursy (Scarlett Johansson, A Love Song For Bobby Long), Rebecca (Cicely Tyson, Sounder), Regina (Bette Davis, The Little Foxes) and Scarlett (Vivien Leigh, Gone With the Wind). 

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
As Orson Welles in Me and Orson Welles, English actor Christian McKay was “a gift of the gods to the movie. Not quite as tall, nor as vocally supple, he is still the Big O in many ways: moon-faced Svengali charm, sardonic lift of the eyebrow, tantrums and endearments, blazing ego, the Borgian greed for food and work and women. Above all, McKay generates the almost un-matchable excitement that made many proud, gifted people ready, even eager, to eat some dirt for Wellesian creative gold.” (From my 2009 review.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
To young Matthew McConaughey’s clear strengths add “the virtues of absence: not agingly boyish like Tom Cruise, not middle-weight McQueen like Brad Pitt, not preppy-cute like Ben Affleck, not macho-stolid like Matt Damon, not fetchingly fey like Johnny Depp, not a goofball like Nicolas Cage, not a beef buffet like Channing Tatum, not a red-carpet media totem like George Clooney. Here was the best Texan for movies since Tommy Lee Jones, and far more likeable.” (From the McConaughey/Dallas Buyers Club 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

Christian McKay as Welles as Brutus, in Me and Orson Welles (Isle of Man Films, 2009; director Richard Linklater, cinematographer Dick Pope).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.