Friday, April 19, 2019

Nosh 149: 'The Aftermath,' 'The Hummingbird Project' & More

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

APPETIZER (Reviews: The Aftermath and The Hummingbird Project)

The Aftermath
There is a juicy role calling to Lana Turner or Ava Gardner in The Aftermath – or there would have been, if the film had been made in the year of its story, 1946. Instead, Keira Knightley plays Rachael Morgan, the remarkably chic wife of a stolid, war-worn British army officer, Lewis (Jason Clarke). Sent to the Brit zone in defeated Germany, they are haunted by the death of their son in the Blitz, with Rachael feeling abandoned because reticent Lewis buried his grief in war duties. Now, chasing down fugitive Nazis in ruined, occupied Hamburg, Lewis tries to be kind to civilians but is brutal with fanatics of a secret group called 88 (8 being the eighth letter of the alphabet, thus 88=HH, as in Heil Hitler).

Away from vast ruins, the Morgans nest into the posh villa of modern architect Stefan Lubert, a sort of Mies van der Roark (as in Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark). Lubert is no Nazi but lost his wife in the bombing, and his daughter is still dazed by Hitler Youth training. He is rakishly handsome, lonely Alexander Skarsgard (totally unlike his role in the film reviewed below). With Lewis away on hard duty, Stefan and Rachael kindle with desire. Director James Kent treats the affair as if channeling old studio writers, and though the candid sex would not have been filmed in the Forties, the story’s ending (with a vapor of Casablanca) would have pleased the moralizing Production Code. Lewis’s military ventures grimly contrast with love meets that flash a certain hauteur. Stefan signals his yearning availability with an operatic aria on the gramophone, Rachael (at the piano) replies with the more delicate hormones of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” 

The movie, which spends more time on swank dinners than hunger riots, is not a tiresome dud like 2006’s The Good German, but never rivals postwar classics like Germany Year Zero and The Third Man. Richly photographed, it uses many melodramatic devices. Skarsgard is quite fine, Clarke excellent despite his rather constipated role. Mainly this is a retro package for Knightley, a true talent but also a beauty bonanza. We’re so aware of her creamy complexion, pert profile and toothy smile (she seems, like Gene Kelly in his prime, a billboard of dental and dermatological perfection). Still, she makes the camera swoon, and makes her Hamburg romance more than a hamburger patty.

The Hummingbird Project
If you can’t find oil below your lawn or field, you might as well hope for a fiber optical cable tunnel, dug to zoom data in a straight line that cuts the delivery time of high-frequency trading data from Wall Street markets. After all, “16 milliseconds is one flap of a hummingbird’s wing,” as  dorky wizard of fiber optics Anton Zaleski says in The Hummingbird Project.” Unless you are a hummingbird, the tiny gained time means profitable millions!

Bald, blobby Anton (Alexander Skarsgard) is a nerdy work maniac who often ignores his lovable family. Brother Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg), a plumber’s son who doesn’t know how to fix a flat tire, is the obsessed entrepreneur determined to build a linear cyber tunnel from NYC to a massive electronics hub in Kansas. Both are vulnerable compulsives, Anton a geek squad unto himself, Vincent willing to delay cancer treatment so he can install the tunnel. Their big investor is less technical: “Don’t fuck us, Vinny.” Anton's ex-boss is biz witch Salma Hayek, as far from Frida Kahlo as she can get, building transmission towers to beat the brothers.

Scrawny Eisenberg, who seems to have fiber optics in his vocal cords to speed up dialog, and goofy Skarsgard, an amusingly driven dreamer, provide vivid moments. But director and writer Kim Nguyen is dealing with physics beyond common understanding, while connecting feelings and ideas like simple Lego blocks. There is an Amish farmer along the route, representing Ye Olde Native Virtue much as Hayek personifies Mad Modern Greed. This odd film starts to seem like a vintage ticker tape machine trying awfully hard to be digitally hip.      

SALAD (A List)
Ten Fine Movies of Invention and Science
With their star and discipline: Agora (Rachel Weisz, Greco-Roman science), The Aviator (Leonardo DiCaprio, aircraft design), Bombshell (Hedy Lamarr, spectrum technology), Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (Edward G. Robinson, medical research), Hidden Figures (Henson-Monáe-Spencer, rocket math), Hugo (Ben Kingsley, cinema), The Imitation Game (Benedict Cumberbatch, computer decryption), The Magic Box (Robert Donat, film technology), Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge (Karolina Gruzska, radium physics) and Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender, personal computers).   

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Preparing for his movie debut at RKO, Orson Welles at 24 “went to film school” principally with the work of John Ford: “Using what André Bazin has called ‘invisible editing,’ Ford created poetic moments of mood with his camera. This continuous, seemingly effortless flow, scene to scene and within scenes, was what arrested Welles … He began to see the development of a nostalgia, a sentimentality, a romantic vision of history, that seemed to permeate all of the man’s films, the beginnings of what critic Andrew Sarris once called a cinema of memory, and Welles, perhaps unconsciously, wanted membership.” (From Frank Brady’s Citizen Welles. Making the supreme memory film, Citizen Kane, Welles would later say, “Ford was my teacher. My own style has nothing to do with his, but Stagecoach was my textbook.”)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Alec Guinness built surfaces to delve inside the character, as with artist Gulley Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth: “The paint-crusted clothes, choppy beard and recent-prison pallor were easy strokes. His seal of possession was the voiee, like rusty gears grinding in an old Thames mill, yet able to purr and seduce. His speech is ‘like air passing out of gravel,’ and from the gravel pit came unexpected modulations, and silences worthy of the fabled Tramp. Ian Christie noted that ‘Chaplin’s calculated clowning and faux-naïve sexuality may be one source.’ ” (From the Alec Guinness/Horse’s Mouth 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.

John Wayne found major stardom as Ringo in Stagecoach (United Artists, 1939; director John Ford, photography by Bert Glennon).

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