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. 

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).

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