Movie review: 'Bright Leaves'

3 stars (out of 4)

How would you react if you discovered that your great-grandfather was not only a once-renowned Southern business giant whose fortune and fame were stolen by a more legendary tycoon--but also the possible inspiration for a movie hero played by Gary Cooper?

Perhaps with mixed pride and unease, which is what Ross McElwee ("Sherman's March") shows in his latest documentary "Bright Leaves." "Leaves" is another of his beguiling "personal chronicle" movies, in this case the amiable North Carolina-born filmmaker's search for the truth about his great-grandfather, one-time tobacco monarch John McElwee--whom he initially believes may have inspired the Gary Cooper character in Michael Curtiz's 1950 tobacco country opus, "Bright Leaf."

McElwee makes movies in the same deeply personal way that writers and columnists use their daily lives in journals or magazines; here, he takes us on a quest through his birthplace, dreams and conscience. Viewing "Bright Leaf" with a movie-crazy film and memorabilia collector relative, and observing Coop's doomed fight against a ruthless tobacco baron played by Donald Crisp--reminiscent of John McElwee's successful nemesis, Washington Duke--he decides to track down the historical truth and its links to Curtiz's glossy melodrama.

Along the way, he also searches for the truth about the South--and about the tobacco empire that Washington Duke, namesake of Duke University, built in North Carolina over the ashes of his partner-turned-rival McElwee, creator of Bull Durham tobacco, and later, the film suggests, over the corpses of many a Southerner (or for that matter, Yankee) who died of nicotine addiction and its related diseases.

That's the second theme of the movie: how tobacco addicted and killed even as it provided a lucrative foundation for the rise of Southern business. We see a number of those victims or ex-victims here, some who successfully quit, some still puffing away.

"Bright Leaves" is another chapter in McElwee's amiable ongoing film examination of his relationship to the modern and old South, a diary that reached its high point in 1986 with the multi-prize-winning psycho-sexual odyssey of "Sherman's March." Like all his work, "Bright Leaves" is a beguiling film. Watching it is like spending time with an old, somewhat chatty but endearing friend.

This is a film about the "other" modern South, the more progressive, critical region of intellectuals and outsiders hidden within the more visible and dominant culture of boosterism, guns and piety. But it's a tale of the Old South as well--and although John McElwee may not be quite what his filmmaking descendant first imagines, Ross McElwee, now of Boston and Harvard, is a proud citizen of both worlds.

"Bright Leaves"

Directed, written and produced by Ross McElwee; photographed by McElwee; edited by McElwee, Mark Meatto; sound by Rick Beck; associate produced by Linda Morgenstern. A First Run Features release of a Homemade Movies production. Opens Friday at The Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:45. No MPAA rating. Family; parents cautioned for intense discussions of tobacco addiction and health dangers.

Director Ross McElwee will appear at the Music Box Theatre Friday, opening night, to introduce his film. For showtimes, call 773-871-6604 or go to www.musicboxtheatre.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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