Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Nosh 75: 'Atomic Blonde,' 'Maudie' & More

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


APPETIZER: Reviews of Atomic Blonde and Maudie
Atomic Blonde
It opens with the famous TV clip of Ronald Reagan in Berlin, demanding “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” As Atomic Blonde pinballs its dizzy plot, I kept thinking “please, tear down these clichés.” A little desperately, I tried imagining Reagan as English undercover agent Lorraine, the “atomic blonde.” No way! She’s Charlize Theron: sleek, buff, lethal, freeze-dried emotionally. She is hunting for “the list,” a secret “atom bomb of information that could extend the Cold War another 40 years.” But it is late 1989 and the Berlin Wall, at just 28, is about to fall and take down the Cold War.

Director David Leitch filmed an East Berlin so grimly gray that he makes The Spy Who Came in From the Cold seem like a Carmen Miranda musical. Did the brutal DDR (East German) regime died from color anemia? Theron, in zippy black-and-white, kills with kinetic panache. But her flatlined acting draws no expressive blood from the source, a graphic novel. Caught in a frenzied turnstile of violence and loud song blasts, Theron is zombified along with James McAvoy as a snappy punk-hunk. Also Eddie Marsan, John Goodman, Toby Jones and, as the British spy chief, James Faulkner (my nominee to star in Trapped With Trump: The Gen. John Kelly Story). French agent Sofia Boutella salivates carnality with Theron, whose sexiness arrives from a cold tap.

On its barnstorming terms Atomic Blonde “works,” but is so over-determined as a plex thriller that it has no dimensions except ballistic wow and plotted murk. Blood splashes the lens, and derivations clobber everything: bits of Tarantino, Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), franchises (Bond, Bourne, Matrix) and, ancestrally, John Le Carré’s spy fictions. Even the most drip-dry  passages of Le Carré’s great TV movies, Tinker, Tailor… and Smiley’s People, both starring infallible Alec Guinness, had more life, wit, suspense and depth than any part of Atomic Blonde. But for fans of atomic mayhem, such slow, talky shows are tepid tea at a dull hotel. 

Maudie
It’s called Maudie, though she calls herself Maude. That lean to cuteness in a fact-rooted film doesn’t overwhelm Sally Hawkins as Maude Lewis, who was “born funny” (juvenile arthritis). Abusively ostracized, she found another loner: Everett, a fishmonger on the Nova Scotia coast. He wanted a housekeeper for his simple shack. Overcoming his sometimes grim machismo, Maude charms, pecks and steadies him into marriage, and she gaily decorates the place with her simple, vivid paintings. They puzzle Everett, no aesthete, but win an enthusiastic patron from New York.

Let’s avoid curatorial labels like “naif” for Maude’s art, which looks like a childish variant on the famously (in my youth) nostalgic pictures of Grandma Moses. In Aisling Walsh’s film art is clearly Maude’s life raft, and Hawkins makes it credible. Her Maude is savvy, flashing some of the sardonic smarts that made Hawkins a sensation in Happy Go Lucky. The Hawke and Hawkins match is a fine pairing of thespian wings, in a tale of survivors that has been accused of softening the original story. But the actors bring real integrity to it, and the Canadian settings resonate.

As the couple ages, turning more creaky and cranky, the story takes on a gravity of real pathos. True, you might laugh when Everett, who first ranked Maude below the chickens in his (pardon me) pecking order, now places her above the dogs. At moments the movie verges on lampoon, like Ethan Frome headin’ down the La Strada road to find a new life On Golden Pond. Still, here is a piercingly humane view of a marriage that, if not made in heaven, rose above hell. 

SALAD (A List)
Fifteen Outstanding Canadian Films (with director, year):
The 49th Parallel (The Invaders; Michael Powell, 1941), The Luck of Ginger Coffey (Irvin Kershner, 1964), Goin’ Down the Road (Donald Shebib, 1970), Mon Oncle Antoine (Claude Jutra, 1971), The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (Ted Kotcheff, 1974), The Silent Partner (Darryl Duke, 1979), The Grey Fox (Phillip Borsos, 1982), I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (Patricia Rozema, 1987), Dead Ringer (David Cronenberg, 1988), Jesus of Montreal (Denys Arcand, 1989), 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould (Francois Girard, 1993), Away From Her (Sarah Polley, 2006), My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2007), Barney’s Version (Richard J. Lewis, 2010) and Monsieur Lazhar (Philippe Falandreau, 2011).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
As a virtuoso director Welles never surpassed the sequence in The Trial (1962) of K (Anthony Perkins) in panic flight down a wooden corridor, hounded by a swarm of girl “groupies” who “pursue him, their screams filling the soundtrack. Stripes of light flood through the slatted walls and make a dancing abstract pattern on K’s body as he dashes towards the camera, which was being pushed by a Yugoslav runner. Welles: ‘We put the camera on a wheelchair, it was the only way to move it along the wooden planks.’ Reverse tracking shots sweep back alternatively in front of K and the girls, their shadows writhing on the walls …The sequence runs less than half a minute but contains 25 closely knit shots.” (From Peter Cowie, The Cinema of Orson Welles.) 

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
For John Huston, filming The Treasure of the Sierra Madre mostly in Mexico meant few studio comforts: “He chose as base two villages in primal Michoacán. Local extras were so humbly respectful that when he shouted ‘Silencio!’ they covered their mouths. Anti-Yanqui press roiled the filming in Tampico, until an editor received his mordita (bribe). Artist Diego Rivera intervened with federal authorities busy protecting the national honor (dollars helped).” (From the Humphrey Bogart/Treasure of the Sierra Madre chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, serving your attentive pleasure on Amazon, Kindle and Nook.)

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


Ida (Katherine Helmond) beauties-up in Brazil (Universal, 1985; director Terry Gilliam, cinematographer Roger Pratt).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.


Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Nosh 74: 'Marie Curie,' 'Letters from Baghdad' & More

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



APPETIZER: Reviews of Marie Curie and Letters From Baghdad

Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge
You don’t expect a film about a great female scientist to include a pistol duel in the woods, but then you haven’t seen Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge. Curie (b. Maria Sklodowska) was surely Poland’s greatest export to France since pianist Frédéric Chopin (b. Fryderyk Chopin). She married the brilliant French chemist Pierre Curie, co-shared (by his insistence) the Nobel Prize, and after his tragic death became the first person to win a second Nobel. She co-discovered radium and polonium, pioneered the crucial theories of radioactivity (and cancer treatments), designed and conducted experiments (which finally killed her), uplifted female scientists and – touché!—was the Sorbonne’s first female prof, and the first woman buried in the Panthéon.

Marie Noelle’s bravura film makes us forget Greer Garson’s Madame Curie (1943), who hugged her nobility like a tragic fur from Bonwit Teller. In this Franco-Polish production (German financing), Noelle and photographer Michal Englert achieve French light of such Impressionist impact that we can almost believe radium is the source. Noelle gives us the scientific excitement, the work, the friendship with Einstein, the misogynist opposition including imbecilic anti-Semitism (she wasn’t Jewish), and Marie’s love of Pierre and their kids, notably Irene (who went on to her own Nobel). The couple stand before luminous vials of radium. Pierre: “It is glowing from inside.” Marie: “Like you.” OK, a touch corny, but great, radiant corn!

Noelle’s first film was Obsession (1997), with Daniel Craig, and Marie Curie goes well beyond. There is high fixation in Marie’s science, her feminism, her love of Pierre, her recovery from his death (street accident), her compensating love for Pierre’s great assistant Paul Langevin, which caused scandal. Noell has expert instinct for vividly cross-stitching the creative and personal, as Robert Altman did in his Van Gogh film Vincent and Theo. If Karolina Gruszka doesn’t quite have the Garbo intensity of Poland’s great Maja Komorowska, she attains her own erotic power, salted and served with innate dignity and intellect.

I haven’t seen Daniel Olbrychski in many years (he seemed to be in half the Polish films of the '70s), but here he is, excellent as a preening swine. Also terrific: Charles Berling as Pierre, and Arieh Worthalter as Paul (who fights the duel). Piotr Glowacki’s Einstein easily rivals the recent TV saga Genius. It is really Gruszka’s movie, by way of Noelle. When Paul calls Marie “my beaming radium queen,” we can believe it. Of course, there is also an old-school male to grunt, “Not bad for a woman, eh?” That “eh” is from the periodic table of macho piggery.  

Letters from Baghdad

The masters of war who took us into the Iraq quagmire, in 2003, probably would have cared little for a British film that is a feminist history lesson, poetically realized. Or cared more than a dry, dusty fig for the movie’s subject: Gertrude Bell (1868-1926). In any case, the beautiful and stirring documentary Letters from Baghdad was not made until 2015, a dozen years after the start of our Bush-born misadventure.

Bell came from a wealthy if declining Yorkshire family, and tore herself from her roots (a lovely estate, a cherished father) after a youthful trip to Persia (Iran) besotted her. One of the great Victorian travelers, Bell applied her Oxford-honed brain to mastering Arabic (“I am so wildly interested in Arabic – and the fun of it!”). Alarming the Ottoman Turks, she led her own camel troupe into the baking interior of Saudia Arabia. Her enchantment with Brit-run Mesopotamia, once fabled Babylon, would lead to her advising Winston Churchill (as did her friend T.E. Lawrence “of Arabia”) into forging the kingdom of Iraq after WWI. The acerbic, tireless Bell became a power, “one of the boys” in a blunt but feminine way. The man she loved was killed in World War I and Gertrude became, in essence, betrothed to exotic history. After Iraq was born, she founded and guided Baghdad’s museum of antiquities.

An excellent tribute and time capsule, Letters touches greatness with its form: an almost Arabian Nights streaming of old news clips, travelogs, personal movies and Bell’s often wonderful photos, in a shimmering cascade of times reborn. The film has a haunted fluency, Bell’s strong face looming among sandy vistas. Her letters are read with High Victorian grace by Tilda Swinton. Actors speak as other key figures, studio-posed in period costume. The makers, including editor Sabine Krayenbuhl (who co-directed with Zeva Oelbaum) and designer Erik Rehl, achieve perhaps the most poetic use of vintage film since Peter Delpeut’s entrancing salute to proto-cinema, Lyrical Nitrate.  

SALAD (A List)
Memorable Women Starring in Documentaries:
Pina Bausch in Pina, 2011; Antonia Brico in Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman, 1974; Louise Brooks in Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu, 1998; Marlene Dietrich in Marlene, 1984; Traudl Junge in Hitler’s Secretary, 2002; Vivian Maier in Finding Vivian Maier, 2013; Carmen Miranda in Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business, 1995; Ayn Rand in Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, 1996; Leni Riefenstahl in The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, 1993; Eleanor Roosevelt in The Eleanor Roosevelt Story, 1965; Nina Simone in What Happened, Miss Simone?, 2015; Patti Smith in Patti Smith: Dream of Life, 2008; Susan Tom in My Flesh and Blood, 2003; Amy Winehouse in Amy, 2015; Gwen Welles in Angel on My Shoulder, 1998.      

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Partly for legal reasons, partly from pride-of-inspiration, Orson Welles always tried to deflect the idea that Citizen Kane is centrally about William Randolph Hearst. In 1941 he sought to elude that notion in an article: “The easiest way to draw parallels between Kane and other famous publishers is not to see the picture. It is the portrait of a public man’s private life. I have met some publishers, but I know none of them well enough to make them possible models. Constant references have been made to the career of Hearst, drawing parallels to my film. That is unfair to Hearst and to Kane.” His viewpoint has not prevailed. (Quote from Frank Brady’s fine biography Citizen Welles.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Among those thrilled in 1935 by Katharine Hepburn’s moving Alice Adams was young Pauline Kael: “Hepburn made her feel ‘as if you were inside her skin.’ The Bay Area girl ‘was 16 when the film was first shown, and during the slapstick dinner-party scene, when Alice was undergoing agonies of comic humiliation, I started up the aisle to leave the theater, and was almost out the door before I snapped back to my senses.’ Alice Adams still snaps our senses.”
(From the Hepburn/Alice Adams chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, obtainable from Amazon, Nook, Kindle.)

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


A Pina Bausch dancer in Pina (IFC Films, 2011; director Wim Wenders; cinematographers Helene Louvart, Jorg Widmer).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.