Friday, April 5, 2019

Nosh 147: 'Hotel Mumbai,' 'The Beach Bum' & More

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

APPETIZER (Reviews: Hotel Mumbai and The Beach  Bum)

Hotel Mumbai
Let us pull the grenade pin on the key thought about Hotel Mumbai: What’s the point of lavishly staging an epic true-life tragedy, if you’re going to reduce it to the grinding  tactics of an old Rambo or Death Wish, but minus the macho hero who alone makes such blowouts viable? Clearly this movie about the deadly jihadist attack (Nov. 26, 2008) on Mumbai’s historic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel had no hopes for the star glamour of Grand Hotel or the mothball charm of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It is a visceral autopsy of a nightmare, filmed with vivid realism but also the docu-drama mechanics of a lurid TV special. Anyone recall Nine Hours to Rama? That 1963 film stacked much more suspense (and context) about another Indian tragedy, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination.

While fanaticism is on one side, in the rather small force of suicidal boy-men who think that shouting “Allahu Akbar!” (“God is most great!”) is a combat strategy, stupidity remains more balanced. Never employing a camera shot he can’t repeat (partly because they were done by others long ago), director Anthony Maras indicates that the killers came with inadequate ordnance, a zeal for arson and poor language skills. They remain slavish to the phone orders of their death-cult leader but, weirdly, fail to take over the video security room. The mighty Taj exists in such a gilded bubble that on film it takes quite a while before those inside, despite TV and cellphones, to notice that the city is under savage attack at many points. The staff is amazingly loyal, yet there’s no armed security detail. Police hover outside, waiting for troops from distant Delhi (why none in Mumbai, the former Bombay that remains India’s chief port and financial center?).

The story is a gridlock of fear, of victims hiding, skulking, weeping, begging and dying. It has three positives: the fabled hotel (dating from 1903) suffers grandly; Dev Patel invests his engaging humanity in a Sikh waiter who finds movingly non-macho courage; and veteran Anupam Kher, as the Taj’s head chef, is a pillar of sense, dignity and service (“the guest is god”). Jason Isaacs is stuck playing a rich Russian boor whose key moment is to spit at a jihadist before biting his Achilles tendon. Reaching for a western market, Hotel Mumbai puts heavy focus on white guests, notably a handsome American architect (Armie Hammer), his very pale Indian wife, and their baby and nanny. Never probing deeply into anyone, never very informative about political context, the film simply hurls us into chaotic violence. Filmed in at least six previous versions, the Taj’s story here finds no better seventh.  

The Beach Bum
You can count on your little pinkies those viewers who will see Matthew McConaughey’s The Beach Bum and think back longingly to Charles Laughton in The Beachcomber (1938), to David Niven in The Little Hut (1957), to James Mason ogling teen beach-wow Helen Mirren in Age of Consent (1969). No, this soused, shambling comedy is for people who just want to get hammered stupid every day. Put this Florida seashell next to your ear, and you can hear a manatee belching.

From the way McCon says “Hey hey hey hey” to a kitten, we guess he is invoking his fabled “Alright alright alright” mantra, as party animal Wooderson in Dazed and Confused. But that guy was cool and smart. Slob Moondog is just a sponge faking hippie vibes (for the real retro on that, see Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice). Horny and buff-built, with a seaweedy crown of blond hair, he spouts inane poems. Isla Fisher as his spritzy, separated, still smitten wife adores him as a kind of gonzo-ganja Whitman (her cabana hamper must contain thin, flaking volumes of Rod McKuen). Moon dogs around with wealthy doper Lingerie (Snoop Dogg, the rap-pimp Slinky), and he has a jolly stooge agent (Jonah Hill, his bloated Southern accent making up for lost weight). As the wild “poet” hurls himself upon women like the Moby Dick of mashers, the film dilutes his obvious alcoholism by emphasizing canabis, bongs and “fun” beer (Pabst Blue Ribbon, crazy Dennis Hopper’s fave in Blue Velvet).

Depend on McConaughey’s foxy-dude charm and body lingo to deliver some amusement, but Harmony Korine’s script is a toy boat in a toilet. Russ Meyer and John Waters never fell to this. Crass larks lead to a wretched rehab sequence, where the beach bard hooks up with a sociopath (Zac Efron) and, clueless as a clam, simply goes along with his creepiness. Director Korine (Gummo, Kids, Trash Humpers) has packed and then popped a piñata for McConaughey’s midlife (49) crisis. This film is a dawg mooning its turd.    

SALAD (A List)
Tonic Free Spirits on Film
Gulley Jimson (Alec Guinness) in The Horse’s Mouth, Timothy “Speed” Levitch (as himself) in The Cruise, The Kid (Sam Rockwell) in Box of Moonlight, Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) in A Bigger Splash, Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Alexis Zorba (Anthony Quinn) in Zorba the Greek, Sally Bowles (Julie Harris) in I Am a Camera, Charles Serking (Ben Gazzara) in Tales of Ordinary Madness, Randall P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Dude (Jeff Bridges) in The Big Lebowski, Alan Swann (Peter O’Toole) in My Favorite Year, Doc Sportello (Joaquine Phoenix) in Inherent Vice, Jerry Baskin (Nick Nolte) in Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Annie (Amanda Plummer) in Cattle Annie and Little Britches, Larry Poole (Bing Crosby) in Pennies from Heaven, and Samson Shillitoe (Sean Connery) in A Fine Madness.

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Never yearning for movie stardom, and only once a big commercial star (as Lime in Carol Reed’s The Third Man), Orson Welles talked about the curious case of his (but even more Joseph Cotten’s) co-star in that film, Alida Valli: “She was the biggest star in Europe. She was huge during the fascist period, all through the war in Rome. Then Selznick destroyed her. He brought her to America to make a big star out of her here, thought he’d have another Bergman. (After Third Man scored he put her in) a terrible trial movie, Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case. Then something else terrible. She came back to Europe and nobody would hire her, they said ‘She can’t be any good. She failed in Hollywood.’ After that it was just a special appearance by Alida Valli.” (Welles to Henry Jaglom in My Lunches With Orson.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
One of Matthew McConaughey’s best (and brief) roles is  stock trading shark Mark Hanna, the “insanely glib boss of new hustler Jordan Belfort (Leo DiCaprio) in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Impeccably suited in a skyscraper restaurant, he gazes upon the awed recruit like a mentoring vulture. He bulldozes him, ordering serial martinis, inhaling cocaine, defining the market as ‘a Fugazi, a wazi, a woozy, it’s fairy dust, it doesn’t exist,’ except to suck money from clients. Hanna’s menu: greed, whores, drugs and metronomic masturbation. He is like a mad merger of Rene Auberjonois’s avian nut in Brewster McCloud and Brad Dexer’s chanting senator who stuns an election party in Shampoo.” (From the McConaughey/Dallas Buyers Club chapter of my book Starlight Rising, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)

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

Life unfreezes for engineer Al (John Turturro) with The Kid (Sam Rockwell) in Box of Moonlight (Lakeshore Entertainment 1996; director Tom DiCillo, photographed by Paul Ryan).

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