Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Nosh 148: 'The Best of Enemies,' 'Diane' & More

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

APPETIZER (Reviews: The Best of Enemies and Diane)

The Best of Enemies
Best of Enemies was a swell title for 2015’s documentary about the snobby, cat-claw feud of writers Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. Now The Best of Enemies suits the directorial debut of writer Robin Bissell. He does it by the book (Osha Gray Davison’s is the source), using well-stitched plot seams and a history lesson not written in shiny crayon. If you don’t know about the 1971 school integration crisis in Durham, North Carolina, here’s your chance, delivered by an excellent cast.

Taraji P. Henson, 12 years beyond her saucy dish Vernell (“fine as frog’s hair”) in Talk to Me, is the buxom motor of protest Ann Atwater. Her ramrod fury at white racism finds a perfect lightning rod: Claiborne “C.P.” Ellis, the bantam-cock head of the Durham Klan. That means Sam Rockwell in high strut of prime, already Oscar-crowned by his rascal rube Dixon in Three Billboards. Slouching his lean body, slurping cornmeal dialog, casting foxy-yokel glances, C.P. is a nest of ill-educated insecurities, but no fool – he’s like the Last Gift of William Faulkner. As the story pivot he will learn to face his Dixie-dosed racism through empathy (and his resentment of the White Citizens Council squires who lord over his fellow rednecks). He and Ann head opposing sides of a biracial conciliation group forged by a brave black organizer (Babou Ceesay). Most whites clearly consider the effort a delaying tactic.

Over 133 minutes, the rooted atmosphere and solid pacing allow the characters to evolve. The one forcing touch is famous songs, to cue episodes (like Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” for a Klan terror shooting). The old class structure looms heavily over gas station manager C.P.’s near-poverty. His loyal wife (Anne Heche) doesn’t really care for the white-sheet gang, but she knows the Klan gives him status among larger males. Henson’s bold-eyed power remains humanly scaled, while Rockwell fulfills one of his best roles. His scene with a thoughtful Vietnam vet and his closing speech at the tense vote on integration are absolutely true, without any ham drippings. It happened, and it still resonates.

Mary Kay Place is the heart and soul of Diane. It’s been a long road since her cute, chipper Loretta on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Meg in The Big Chill. As Diane, Place at 70 gets the kind of crowner that Harry Dean Stanton found at 57 in Paris, Texas. This is no art triumph like that picture, but still a fully realized work. Critic Kent Jones (Hitchcock/Truffaut and A Letter to Elia) wrote it for Place, and directed with savvy, granular admiration. You can see Kazan roots in it, also bits of Cassavetes and Altman and Ken Loach. Jones and Place lace a double helix of intimacy and candor that movies seldom achieve, and without any  “chick flick” safety bumpers.

We plunge into Diane’s tired, aging life in some wintry-rainy New England town. A giver, she cares greatly for her gallant, dying friend Donna (Deirdre O’Connell). She frets about her sorta grown son Brian (Jake Lacy), who’s into his latest drug crisis, masking it badly, driving her half-crazy. Diane, while no saint, is devoted to helping the needy, and to funny chat sessions with a close-knit spread of very living people. This film might not win highly aesthetic critics, but they should see how every shot serves these people, their milieu and beat-up fortitude. As the junkie son, Lacy doesn’t go for sob appeal. O’Connell has a touch of an angel readying for takeoff, but also carries an old beef about Diane. There is a splendid small job by Andrea Martin, that hip bird of comedy on SCTV, still beaky and sharp-tongued, yet gazing at pal Diane with total, loving sympathy.

When Brian bunkers into born-again religion, hectoring his resistant mother, the movie wobbles but recovers its poise. In a wonderful scene, feeling her losses, Diane gets soused in a bar and dances alone to an old rock favorite. She feels nagged by guilt about a ruined marriage, the betrayal of a friend, and Brian’s judgments. The film doesn’t indulge in flashbacks to lay all that out for us, like soapy testimonials. Diane is neither drama nor documentary, but some sort of tonally superb hybrid. Place affirms her place, at last, among the greats of movie acting.   

SALAD (A List)
The salad is listless this week – but more to come!

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Orson Welles’s ticket to rise, most potently in theater and film, most profitably in radio, was his amazingly supple voice. It declared “his prodigal gifts, speaking in complete sentences at age two, supposedly analyzing Nietzsche by ten, performing Shakespeare in his teens, staging the ‘voodoo Macbeth’ at 20. The preternaturally mature instrument helped enable the orphaned, 16-year-old, rather baby-faced Welles to literally talk his way into roles with Dublin’s Gate Theatre. Listen to the talk of an average teenage boy, even one who’s an actor, and ask yourself if anyone in their right mind would cast him in a commercial stage production as the evil Duke in Jew Süss, Welles’s first role at the Gate.” (From Farran Smith Nehme’s essay “The Voice of Orson Welles,” in the info booklet for Criterion’s blu-ray of The Magnificent Ambersons.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
In 1960 ambush photographers got the glamor peg of a new name, paparazzi, from the frisky, furtive Paparazzo (Walter Santesso) in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. But the lens pest had long roots: “When Mark Twain visited England in 1907, Rudyard Kipling saw press cameras ‘click-clicking like gun locks.’ In 1920s London, Aldous Huxley noticed ‘newspapers men, ramping up and down like wolves.’ The definitive New York photo-prowler was Weegee (Arthur Fellig), ruthless noir scavenger of the hard-living and newly dead, often murdered. In 1933 James Cagney grinned and pounced in Picture Snatcher, its rhymed promotion anticipating Weegee: ‘He’ll stop at nothing for a shot/ At something sexy while it’s hot / Your sins to him are bread and butter/ He’s right behind you, lens and shutter.” (From the Marcello Mastroianni/La Dolce Vita 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.

Arnold Moss and Alfonso Bedoya are terrific Mexican villains in the danger-packed Border Incident (MGM, 1949; director Anthony Mann, photography by John Alton).

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