Friday, November 30, 2018

Nosh 132: 'Widows,' Bertolucci, 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'

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

APPETIZER: Reviews of Widows and Can You Ever Forgive Me?

In a brief prelude, director-writer Steve McQueen calls Widows his “passion project.” That reveals the movie’s double edge: a labor of love, long nurtured, but also a ramped-up commercial package. McQueen, whose grip on historical saga was acute (if drawn-out) in 12 Years a Slave, has made an absorbing thriller that uses an impressively tight cast in often superb locations. As a former Chicagoan (18 years), I think this may be the best Chicago display platform since The Untouchables (1987) and The Fugitive (1993).

Viola Davis, now 53, is a vulnerable, motivated action pivot as Veronica, suddenly cast into the deep. She lives in a lakefront Mies high-rise and adores husband Harry (Liam Neeson). He has the money, plus high connections on both sides of the law. Harry’s a thief. His crowning heist, of a rising South Side gangster, goes right but then fatally wrong. Widow Veronica is pushed hard for the stolen $2 million by the gangster’s sado-goon. Elevated from a 1983 TV series, the story is layered by writer Gillian Flynn as a deep-dish Chicago pizza of threat, fear and money-mad fatality.

The gang king Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) is running for alderman. This enrages the ward’s old, white-racist boss, Tom (Robert Duvall), who plans to bestow the seat on son Jack (Colin Farrell), a sleek opportunist but soon disgusted by dad’s fossilized corruption. Plot victuals include an on-the-make gospel preacher, an old bowling alley sharpie, the wanton police killing of a black youth, rude rap music (but also Nina Simone), Veronica’s endangered fluff-ball dog and a volcanic f-spew by Duvall.

Angry and desperate, Veronica takes charge. She recruits two other new widows and a zippy young street fox (Cythia Erivo), to stage a payback heist. Here, I think, McQueen slips a little. Powerhouse Viola Davis is left too often to simmer in mournful funk (fed by erotic flashbacks to Harry). Not enough textured fill is given to tall, Polish-American beauty Alice, a virtual high-rise unto herself, though Elizabeth Debicki is a wow widow (with aspects of Jennifer Lawrence, who passed on this film). Strong but under-used is action trouper Michelle Rodriguez as Linda, harried mom and widow. A surprise reveal comes around an hour in, not divulged here, but if you are hip to the ritual games of star-ego casting you might expect it.

Widows is a big, vivid tapestry with threaded debts to auteurs Tarantino, Scorsese, Mann, Russell, Coppola and Spike Lee. It isn’t a great heist movie, but McQueen crafts plenty of urban tension and crackle. His savvy is not too cynical, and his female empowerment zeal is (for a guy) nuanced. Softies won’t like the best sicko bowling alley scene since There Will Be Blood. But the fluffy pooch is a survivor.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Lee Israel wrote popular biographies of Tallulah Bankhead and Dorothy Kilgallen. By 1991 her failure with beauty stylist Estee Lauder led to Lee’s rejection by her editor. Lauder did zero for her. As played with acerbic pathos by Melissa McCarthy, in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, she often looks (floppy mop of brown hair, bulging coats over bulky bod) like a rusted tank from the Maginot Line. But despair, marinated in booze, brings inspiration. Lee begins faking typed, signed notes by the famous, like Tallulah, Kate (Hepburn), Louise (Brooks) and Dorothy (Parker). Most are juiced by Lee’s tangy verve (“Caustic wit is my religion”), though foolish candor in a Noël Coward scribble would bring the law to her door. By then she had sold over 400 notes to New York dealers eager to be impressed (for profit).

McCarthy, a comical ace (who can forget her SNL spiking of Sean Spicer?), introduces Lee as a frumpy, sour, alcoholic loner, her lesbian lover long gone. She becomes a  rather endearing desperado. Forgery is her forge of income, and her flag of effrontery. It also leads to snarky mischief with gay rascal and bar barnacle Jack Hock. That would be England’s Richard E. Grant, in an old-rake extension of his breakthrough role as a hell-raiser in Withnail and I (1987). Sponger, cokehead, boy-cruiser, Jack is often a cultural dunce. It’s 1991, he’s around 60, but gay Jack doesn’t know that “Marlene” is the divine Mahr-lay-na Dietrich, idol of sophisticated gays for his entire youth. The two scampy scroungers flash some sparkle, accentuated by a classic song-track (Billie Holiday, Blossom Dearie and Dinah Washington were Lee’s nostalgia sirens of “a better time and place”).

Director Marielle Heller firmly hits notes both glum and bright, tucking McCarthy and Grant into intimate rhythms, hip but not campy. Fine support comes from three women: Dolly Wells as Lee’s most sympathetic buyer, Jane Curtin as her hard-baked editor, and Anna Deavere Smith as her unsentimental past lover. The film is a crusty munchie with soft insides, based on Lee’s acclaimed memoir (she died in 2014). With its wry, melancholy charm it joins the eccentric family of movies about New York dreamers and scrape-alongs: The Cruise, The Producers, Mac, Broadway Danny Rose, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Norman, A Fine Madness, They All Laughed, Midnight Cowboy, Joe Gould’s Secret and Next Stop, Greenwich Village

SALAD (A Memorial List) 
Bernardo Bertolucci died in Rome on Monday at 77. Perhaps the most inspired visual sensualist since Joseph von Sternberg, the daring director gave Italian style a new international luster and scooped up Oscars for The Last Emperor. He also provided Marlon Brando his last great role (Paul in Last Tango in Paris). Here, by my order of preference, are Bertolucci’s best: The Conformist (1970), Last Tango in Paris (1972), The Last Emperor (1987), Before the Revolution (1964), Luna (1979), Besieged (1995), 1900 (1976), Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (1981), The Spider’s Stratagem (1970), The Dreamers (2003), The Sheltering Sky (1970).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Laurence Olivier sought to fire Orson Welles as director during their 1960 staging of Rhinoceros, quite some change after an earlier, fawning letter: “Darling boy (Welles was 44), I have wanted to pick you up and swing you round and dance you up and down on my knee and even go birds-nesting with you in some tiny measure, to show you how adorably sweet and generous was your dear thought.” The “dear thought” which sparked this effusion “was the loan of a refrigerator.” Olivier’s compliments often arrived like Shakespeare, drunk, falling into a fruit salad, although he (like Orson) offered many proofs of preferring women to darling boys. (Quotes from Philip Ziegler’s book Olivier.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Just before filming his splendid Philip Marlowe in his best film, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye in 1972, Elliott Gould’s star value “suddenly shrank. The breakup with Barbra Streisand and drug use (acid etc.) left him raw (‘I didn’t have a drug problem, I had a reality problem’). He absented himself from A Glimpse of Tiger, Warners shut it down, and Gould paid a big forfeit penalty. At least he had his name back: ‘What really got me down was the loss of my second name – I was either Mr. Streisand or Elliott Who?’ But Altman’s movie was a karmic rebound, and came on good wheels: Gould owned the 1948 Lincoln driven by Marlowe.” (Quote from the Elliott Gould/The Long Goodbye chapter of my book Starlight Rising, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)   

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

Jean-Louis Trintignant is sexy fascist Marcello in the swooningly stylized The Conformist (Mars Film, 1970; director Bernardo Bertolucci, photography by Vittorio Storaro).

For previous Noshes, scroll below.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Nosh 131: 'Beautiful Boy,' 'Tea With the Dames' & More

David Elliott
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, new each Friday.
NOTE: Nosh 132 will appear on Friday, Nov. 30.

APPETIZER: Reviews of Beautiful Boy and Tea With the Dames

Beautiful Boy
Playing the drug-addicted drummer Frankie Machine in The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), Frank Sinatra looked tortured by his own gaunt, stringy physique. His writhing heroin hell shocked viewers but didn’t get the expected Oscar (losing to Ernest Borgnine’s lovelorn butcher Marty, as did James Dean in East of Eden). Director Otto Preminger ram-jammed the jazz (great score), a predatory creep (Darren McGavin), Frankie’s women (deceitful, cloying Eleanor Parker and naïve, moony Kim Novak) and his “cold turkey” agony. The spirit of harsh melodrama has haunted drug drama ever since, but Beautiful Boy does not succumb.

There is a supple spine of substance: exceptionally fine performances by Steve Carell as Bay Area writer David Sheff and Timothée Chalamet as his teen, then 20s son, the addict Nic. Derived from their separate memoirs, the movie has flashbacks to adorable kid Nic and his devoted father. Then Chalamet takes over with the seemingly infallible, not smug naturalness that made him so very special in Call Me By Your Name. He looks like a Vogue revival of Donatello’s David, and the contrast with Carell’s rather pinched, regular-guy visage is a bonus. It underscores and resonates the emotional bond, as talented Nic spins off on hooked highs and bottom-crawling lows (mostly from crystal meth, which can damage the brain disastrously).

There is not much psychologizing, more the anguish of unknowable motives (Amy Ryan as Nic’s mom and Maura Tierney as his stepmother are touching but fairly marginal). Timothy Hutton, beautiful boy of a past era, appears as a meth expert, like a shrunken echo of Judd Hirsch’s therapist role in Hutton’s 1980 breakthrough, Ordinary People. In and out of treatment (the phrase “relapse is part of recovery” is not consoling), running to and from the family, Nic drives David nearly mad with bewildered anxiety. Their mutual love and guilt form an almost toxic double-helix. The confrontation in a San Francisco coffeehouse is among the greatest father-and-son scenes on film.

Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen maintains the potent core, with softening touches like Marin County vistas and sun-dappled shots of the woody-modern home. Some music inserts feel generic, though several rock tunes and “St. James Infirmary” (not Satchmo’s classic version) and Perry Como’s “Sunrise, Sunset” are effective. Carell, subtle even when he did broad comedies, has become a remarkably genuine, focused actor, and Chalamet proves again that Adonis looks need not muzzle talent. This is a family film about drug addiction, but anyone who calls it a soaper is blowing bubbles.

Tea With the Dames
The old chums often leave sentences unfinished, fall into silences, lurch into private giggles. Eileen Atkins, 84, and Judi Dench, 83, and Maggie Smith, 83, gather again at the lovely country home of Joan Plowright, who is blind, near-deaf and 88. There she lived with husband Lord Laurence Olivier, and her look-back love has flecks of ambivalence (“Yes, he was tricky,” chimes in Maggie). These elevated but unpretentious Dames of British acting seem beyond any direction from Roger Michell, though he made the great Austen film Persuasion (1995) and Peter  O’Toole’s last fine one, Venus (never mind Hyde Park on Hudson, with Bill Murray’s inane FDR). This chatty occasion is Tea With the Dames – Dench, Smith and Plowright once starred in Tea With Mussolini.

Most senior and limited, Joan presides with dowager dignity. Judi is still spunky and flint-eyed. Eileen preens that while she was never thought very pretty, she was “sexy” (clips prove it). Maggie is reliably funniest, sprinkling the dry wit that has given her the best senior career. Blithely she recalls Olivier slapping her hard during Othello (“It was the only time I saw stars at the National Theatre”), and admits never watching Downton Abbey, although “they sent me the box set.” Actor gossip sometimes hangs moss, some anecdotage is in its dotage, but the foursome is more than old crumpets. Clips include marvels, like teen Judi in a medieval mystery play, seen silent (she recalls her lines from 1951). By day’s end the weary Dames seem lame, drooping over their flutes of champagne. Inevitably, the final words are Shakespeare’s: “Our revels now are ended …”

SALAD (A List)
Maggie Smith’s Ten Best Film Vehicles
As listed by my taste: Gosford Park, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Othello, Harry Potter series, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, A Room With a View, Hot Millions, The Pumpkin Eater, A Private Function, The Lady in the Van.

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Though often disparaged as a remainder-shelf variant on Citizen Kane, Welles’s Mr. Arkadin has always had fans. Like me, and Cuba’s brilliant Guillermo Cabrera Infante. In 1956 he caught the virus of this breathless, tab-noir dream: “The film is like a gigantic cobweb in which Welles, a bearded spider, weaves his plot of intrigues, deceits and lies … a kaleidoscope of signs, like a brainteaser of clues. The truth rises up in fragments, is shattered, is recomposed, finally is discovered whole. And the labyrinth is the only guide to the mystery of art.” (From Cabrera Infante’s rich, strange book of critical pieces, A Twentieth Century Job. The movie is best seen in a splendid three-version set from Criterion.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Never at home in Hollywood, even during his smitten, mostly hidden romance with Tab Hunter, Anthony Perkins fled in 1957 to star in Broadway’s Look Homeward, Angel: “His dreamy Eugene Gant ‘shattered the audience,’ said co-star Arthur Hill. Loving his Tony-nominated role, Tony was aware of ‘a certain boyish charm I’m cashing in on.’ His perpetually virginal nerves hung like tassels. ‘You were always aware,’ said Buck Henry, of Perkins as ‘the watcher, almost the voyeur of his own experience.” (From the Tony Perkins/The Trial 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.

Flea-circus maestro Mischa Auer gives investigator Robert Arden the big eye in Mr. Arkadin (Mercury,1955; director Orson Welles, photography Jean Bourgoin).
For previous Noshes, scroll below.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Nosh 130: 'Hunter Killer,' 'The Sisters Brothers' & More

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

APPETIZER: Reviews of Hunter Killer and The Sisters Brothers 
(NOTE: Nosh 131 will appear Friday, Nov. 16.) 

Hunter Killer
Tell me you are man enough for another submarine action movie. You’d better be woman enough, too, for what could rouse any gender better than an Arctic Ocean dive by a giant atomic sea-phallus? There is a male frisson to this occasion. Told that his assignment could trigger World War III, a burly commando thinks briefly of peace, then grunts “Fuck it. I’d rather go kick some ass.”

A coup-minded Russian general kidnaps his peacenik President at a big Commie (oops, Russian) naval base. Our own Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (Gary Oldman, seizing his check) is ready at once to go Def Con-die! But our President (Caroline Goodall), being female and reality-rooted, says let’s go on high alert while sending in the nuke sub Arkansas to rescue the Russian leader, aided by a team of the bravest, hunkiest, hairiest Seals. Arkansas Capt. Joe Glass, who “never went to Annapolis,” is fresh in command but hormonally ready for the big show. In the mall food court that is modern stardom, Gerard Butler is a solid slab of manloaf (weren’t fabled Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster doing similar jaw locks and steel stares in Run Silent Run Deep?). Butler has a command station so crammed with tech gizmos that even James Mason’s visionary Capt. Nemo (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) would grow gills of envy.

OK, it’s a waterlogged fleet of clichés, including a depth-charge attack, torpedo evasions, an ocean-bottom landing, combat midway between a video game and a recruiting poster. It is almost a cousin to Ice Station Zebra (absurd, but Howard Hughes’s favorite movie). I fell many fathoms into it. Sixty years ago this movie would have intoxicated me, and boyish brain vapors remain to rouse the inner aquatic beast. Down Periscope (see list below) parodied the submersible genre for all time. Hunter Killer blows a manly kiss at self-parody, then sails gung-ho into the dangerous deep.

The Sisters Brothers
There have been many oddball Westerns, the dusty genre that keeps dying but mutating. Such vivid curiosities as Three Godfathers, Lust for Gold, Track of the Cat, The Baron of Arizona, Heller in Pink Tights, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Barbarosa, Viva Maria!, Duck You Sucker, The Missouri Breaks, Dead Man and Meek’s Cutoff (the best and most beautiful is Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller). The quirky-branded herd is joined by The Sisters Brothers. Dreamy slob Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) and his alcoholic brother Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) are killers-for-hire, bonded by blood, body odor and saddle-sore humor.

During an Oregon gold rush they track the dreamy immigrant Herman K. Warm (Riz Ahmed) and well-spoken conniver John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). French director Jacques Audiard films as if the Western myth were a pile of  quaint bones he found in a cinematheque crypt. His eccentricities include a chemical potion for finding gold in streams, a massive bordello madam who doubles as mayor, a spider crawling into sleeping Eli’s mouth, a tender salute to ole Mama Sisters, a speechless coffin cameo by Rutger Hauer (from Blade Runner to this?), and Eli’s most poignant request to Charlie, “Don’t puke on me.”

The actors ride this round-up at a slightly oafish gallop, stuck with a tumbleweed plot and some garbled dialog. There is fine use of light and night, creek and canyon by cinematographer Benoit Debie. But this strange Euro-cruise into the Old West is a burro to park behind the barn, like a jokey gift for the rawhide ghosts of Strother Martin and Slim Pickens. They will both cackle, and spit some chaw.   

SALAD (A List)
15 remarkable (well, entertaining) submarine films
In a “dive, dive, dive!” order of interest:
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (director Richard Fleischer), The Spy in Black (Michael Powell), Das Boot (Wolfgang Petersen), The Enemy Below (Dick Powell), The Russians Are Coming … (Norman Jewison), Hell and High Water (Sam Fuller), Above Us the Waves (Ralph Thomas), The Hunt for Red October (John McTiernan), Down Periscope (David S. Ward), Devil and the Deep (Marion Gering), The Bedford Incident (James B. Harris), Operation Petticoat (Blake Edwards), On the Beach (Stanley Kramer), We Dive at Dawn (Anthony Asquith) and Run Silent Run Deep (Robert Wise).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Getting his friend Marlene Dietrich to do a witty cameo in Touch of Evil (1958) was a plum coup for Orson Welles, who looked back fondly years later: “We were well along before I even thought it up … I think that Dietrich part is as good as anything I’ve ever done in movies. When I think of that opening in New York, without even a press showing! She really was the Super Marlene. Everything she has ever been was in that little house for about four minutes.” (From the Welles/Bogdanovich This is Orson Welles.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
If an actor delves deep into a part, it is often because the part delves deeply into the actor, as with Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas: “The movie streams, yet ‘seamless’ is too smooth a term for both the process and result. Truth rises as vents of inner pressure, in a tri-tonality of silence, speech, music. After the shoot, Stanton happily told reporter Patrick Goldstein of ‘finally playing the part I wanted to play.’ He had found ‘a tremendous amount of me in that character,’ indeed ‘all my feelings about innocence, children, Nastassja (Kinski), having a brother … it’s the story of my life here we’re talking about.” (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.

Paul Lukas, Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre and James Mason are all ship-shape for Jules Verne submarine adventure 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Disney, 1954; director Richard Fleischer, photography Franz Planer).
For previous Noshes, scroll below.