' Cinema Romantico

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Imagining the Movie Aura of a 'Young Bruce Springsteen'


After Frank Vincent died last week, I visited his IMDb page to happily remind myself of all the memorable parts he played, but I confess that what most caught my eye was the entry right at the top, which was a movie scheduled for release in 2018, a movie listed as being in “pre-production”, which means who knows if it will actually even see the light of day? But man, the title and the description were one of those potent IMDb tractor beams that grabbed hold of me and would not let go. The movie is called, ahem, “Asbury Park”, and its description goes like this……

“Hot summer nights, neon lights, hot rods, an upcoming kid known locally as ‘The Boss’ and rock n roll filled the air in 1974 Asbury Park NJ.”

Woah. As an avowed E Street Disciple, that took my breath away. 1974 would place “Asbury Park” at that period between Springsteen’s second and third album, which is to say right before “Born to Run” catapulted him to mega-stardom. Of course, still being a true blue working musician at that point, he was out on tour much of 1974 and away from the boardwalk, which is what the cast list seems to suggest, placing heavy-hitters like Joe Pesci and Ron Perlman and the late Vincent near the top and Mike Rocket Wuertle as “Young Bruce Springsteen” way down near the bottom.

When I told my girlfriend about this, I initially misunderstood and thought no Springsteen had been listed in the cast, leading her to suggest something like Waiting For (Bruce) Guffman, which would have been pretty good. Still, Young Bruce’s placement so far down the cast list suggests something like a cameo, his aura more crucial to the landscape than his actual presence, which is fine, probably the best idea given the towering place Springsteen holds in the culture. And so we wondered, how would “Asbury Park” deploy Young Bruce Springsteen? We concocted some theories by using older movies as reference points.

Possible Cinematic Prototypes for Asbury Park’s “Young Bruce Springsteen”

Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen Brothers’ 2013 film set amidst the 1961 New York City folk scene concludes with its titular, problematic troubadour seeing some no-name newbie take the stage at the Gaslight Café. That newbie, seen only in silhouette, possesses the unmistakable croak of Bob Dylan, saying hello as an incredulous yet curious Llewelyn is made to say “au revoir.” Now I keep picturing “Asbury Park” concluding with the spectral image of a Young Bruce whispering “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” as the movie ends (“for me this boardwalk life is through”), which is a wholly unfair thing to place on a movie in pre-production, but still, my God, reader, can’t you see it? CAN’T YOU SEE IT?

Streets of Fire

Walter Hill’s “Rock & Roll Fable” opens in its mystical time & place with Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) and the Attackers putting musical pedal to the metal for “Nowhere Fast”, a Jim Steinman penned mind-blistering opus, arguably the film’s highpoint, definitely the film’s musical highpoint. And so what if “Asbury Park” didn’t close with Young Bruce but opened with him, setting the tone by tearing through, say, “Kitty’s Back”, and saying greetings from Asbury Park while re-familiarizing all of America with that enchantingly brief period when The Boss was as much Latin Jazz as Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Based on Ben Fountain’s novel, the title refers to a halftime performance at the annual Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving football game by Destiny’s Child, including Beyoncé, that also involves a squad of war heroes. The movie generally left me cold, aside from the halftime sequence itself, but I cherished the book, and I really cherished how Fountain considered Beyoncé from his protagonist’s point-of-view…“She inhabits some far distant astral plane.” Indeed. So you could go that way with Bruce, showing him but not really, a shooting star passing just overhead.

Grand Hotel

MGM’s 1932 Oscar Best Picture winner has become a sort of shorthand for a movie that features several stories with different characters taking place in one locale. So, several months after the city’s famed Stone Pony opened, Bruce played it for the first time in September 1974, right as summer was winding down, a perfect metaphor for, well, anything! Life! Love! Loss! Details of this show are hazy, so maybe that would make it just right, a chance to imagine it as it might have been, and as it might have been leading up to it, with myriad characters cajoling and scheming in and around the Stone Pony until Young Bruce Springsteen takes the stage and, for a night, sets their souls free.

American Graffiti

In George Lucas’s Americana legend, music emanating from car radios was as equally important as characters, and that music was broadcast and accentuated by dee jay Wolfman Jack, constantly heard but only seen once, near the end, more apparition than person. So in “Asbury Park” it might only make sense for Springsteen’s then-songbook to become a melodic supporting character, heard from radios in cars and through open apartment windows and in the background of club-set shots. And Young Bruce will finally appear toward the end, shuffling along the boardwalk with his hands in his pockets, approached by the main character and asked to dispense the meaning of life to which Young Bruce replies “Beats me” before laughing that unforgettable wheezy Bruce laugh.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Sleight

J.K. Dillard’s feature film debut “Sleight” fuses a domestic drama with a superhero origin story, though the superheroism always remains close to ground level. That marks “Sleight” as something akin to “Unbreakable”, where a regular guy must come to grips with the power he wields, although the powers in “Unbreakable” appeared from the mystic while the powers in “Sleight”, befitting its hero’s street magician roots, are more about the impossible being rendered pragmatically behind the curtain, like the electromagnet embedded in the arm of the main character Bo (Jacob Latimore). It sounds sensational, and theoretically it is, though Dillard approaches it as matter-of-factly as he can through Bo’s electrical engineering background. This, however, doesn’t necessarily siphon away any wonder, and while the film’s reliance on familiar genre tropes without adding much new to the equation is a hindrance, their familiarity also emerges as part and parcel to the wonder.

Once a promising a student, Bo (Jacob Latimore) was forced to turn down an engineering scholarship when his mom unexpectedly died, thrusting him into the role of caretaker for his younger sister Tina (Storm Reid). Though he hustles performing magic on the street, seen in wonderful little scenes sprinkled throughout, where his joy at providing others joy is palpable, this isn’t enough to support he and sis, and so he has turned to selling drugs for L.A. kingpin Angelo (Dulé Hill), a lucrative enough gig that seems so easy in the early-going that it can only go belly-up. As it does, Bo also meets cute in the midst of a magic trick with Holly (Seychelle Gabriel). And though he is romantically inexperienced, they begin a relationship, as Bo’s personal, professional and secret lives all collide.


Latimore, however, plays both the escalating intensity of his drug dealing scenes and his romantic scenes with a similar kind of panic, which is much more effective in the former than the latter where he comes across like Clark Kent mixed with “Community’s” Troy Barnes, making it seem as if he’s independently in a YA novel. Gabriel’s character may be attending community college but her performance hints at a knowledge and maturity that Latimore cannot match leaving them with next to no chemistry. What’s more, Holly’s presence takes time away from Bo and Tina’s relationship, which is actually the most crucial and deserving of more screen time, though it is lovingly played when given the opportunity, like bonding over the burning of bacon, which Latimore plays with both caretaking frustration and brotherly love.

The drug-dealing subplot, meanwhile, with Angelo treating Bo as something like a son, and Bo getting pulled in deeper and deeper until he seemingly has no way out, is handled serviceably enough yet with none of the invention that Bo’s illusionism might otherwise suggest. Still, given the character’s skin color, the idea that a young black man who can’t go to school has no other options than this comes through clearly. Indeed, his eventually getting out by way of his electromagnetic trickery, in which he deploys his scientific whiz kid abilities to becomes something like a low budget Neo, becomes a moving commentary on how a black kid in present day America escaping his surroundings can be so difficult that you’d almost swear it requires magic.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Ingrid Goes West

“Ingrid Goes West” opens with its titular twenty-something (Aubrey Plaza) barging into a wedding and macing the bride as payback for not being invited. As is quickly revealed, however, Ingrid was not even an acquaintance of the bride, let alone a friend, merely her Instagram follower, evoking social media’s blurring of the lines between friend and follower, between real and fantasy, a line that director Matt Spicer, in his feature film debut, seeks to both scrutinize and skewer. He does this fairly effectively, at least for a while, and with minimal avocado toast jokes, thank God, though as the movie progresses the social media satire starts to strain as “Ingrid Goes West” transitions into something more like a traditional stalker drama.


After the wedding incident, Ingrid does time in a mental health facility before fleeing to California with $60,000 inherited from her deceased mother, a barely sketched plot point existing to provide a financial foundation for her adventure to the Left Coast. Really, she is a deliberate blank slate, no one as a means to underline how fiercely she connects to what she sees on Instagram, frenzied to remake herself in the plethora of handsomely filtered images she sees. And upon arriving in L.A., she barnacles herself to Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), an online entrepreneur who takes photographs of herself with brands as a means to make a living, or something, an idea worthy of exploration that Spicer sort of sidesteps, locking more into the specifics of her faux-friendship with Ingrid.

The squirmy psychology of their relationship is never more evident than a day trip to Joshua Tree that concludes with them singing along to K-Ci and JoJo’s “All My Life.” Ingrid, staring at Taylor rather than the road with a psychotic love written in her eyes, transforms the chorus, “All my life I’ve prayed for someone like you”, into a horror movie moment while Taylor remains oblivous to her pseudo friend’s hysteria. Indeed, the moment is emblematic of Olsen’s whole performance, existing utterly unto herself, doing this thing where she earnestly looks at people without actually listening to what they have to say, a nifty and necessary trick that makes her failure to detect Ingrid’s fierce clinginess believable.

That trip ends in semi-disaster when the truck Ingrid has borrowed from her landlord Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), and which she promises to have back before dusk only to pointedly renege by ignoring his texts and calls, is severely damaged. Taylor’s assurances that “he’ll understand” because it’s only “a mistake” are evocative of the blithe indifference to actual reality, and Ingrid’s getting away with it scot-free is indicative of how easily she walks all over him after sucking him into her delusional orbit. However, while Dan is written as being a Batman fanatic – “I am Batman” – as a means to underline his own delusion, Jackson plays the part with so much amiable charm he undercuts that self-deception, never coming across as out of touch as all those around him, making it difficult to accept that he can’t see all these narcissists for who they are, especially when he becomes Ingrid’s accomplice.


This happens when Taylor’s brother (Billy Magnussen) becomes suspicious of his sister’s new friend’s intentions, leading Ingrid to take drastic action and lose complete control. As she does, the movie careens into violence and its satire sort of falls away, offering the dime store philosophy that who you are online might not be who you are underneath. What’s worse, there are hints throughout that Ingrid’s Instagram obsession is simply an outgrowth of deeper psychological problems, like that brief mental hospital stint, a serious matter that the film never follows up on, causing it to feel insultingly flip and misplaced. Yet for all the emergent flaws, Plaza’s intense austerity stands out. The movie aims for a “Young Adult”-ish landing of enabling Ingrid’s monstrousness, and while it does not quite come off because she is never brought to the brink of change, that failure still sort of works, her one-dimensional dehumanization a terrifying metaphor for the social media age.

Monday, September 18, 2017

In Memoriam: Harry Dean Stanton


The first time I saw Harry Dean Stanton in a movie he looked old. He was old, of course, in a manner of speaking, past 50, because this was “Alien” where I dare say many of my generation first saw Stanton, and even though that resplendent sci-hi haunted house was a high-profile Ridley Scott joint it was nevertheless willing to employ older odd ducks like Stanton rather than a bunch of up and coming bland, pretty faces. Thank god too. As the years have gone by it is the bitching of Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto, playing a couple grunts who just want to get paid, as emblematic of a Crisis of Confidence as 2121, that has stayed with me just as much as Tom Skerritt’s fateful foray into that vent. And that bitching was just as indicative of Stanton's place in the pantheon as an indelible character actor. He was not just there waiting in the wings to get picked off. And though he did get picked off, naturally, he had to, the moment was as much about his unforgettable visage — a countenance that cut like a Merle Haggard song, like it had seen some shit — as the alien itself. With that face, Stanton knew he didn’t have to scream or such; no, he just had to stand there and look up.

Harry Dean Stanton died last week at the age of 91, which for someone who always felt old somehow still feels too soon. Even so, that age invokes his long career, one that began not on the movie screen but at sea, serving as a cook in the US Navy during WWII. He began making acting appearances in just about every TV show you ever heard of in the 50s and 60s, eventually gravitating to film, in uncredited roles and bit parts, though he could still make an impression, like “Cool Hand Luke”, where even if Stanton was unknown director Stuart Rosenberg could so clearly see something in the actor’s face that he zoomed in on Stanton as he sang Just A Closer Walk With Thee.” (If you’re an unknown getting a close-up in a Paul Newman movie, man, you’ve got It.)

If his character actor abilities and unlikely visage made him perfect for the 1970s, in something of an upset he made his most indelible mark in the 1980s, wandering out of the desert as Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas” (1984) opened, stricken and searching for salvation. Even if it was his first leading role, he had been around so long, deep into his 50s, that he nevertheless never played the part with something to prove, which added to the character, enigmatic and silent and then, gradually, repentant without any people pleasing petulance. That same year he also starred in the cult classic “Repo Man”, more in support yet still taking center stage, and appearing in John Milius’s “Red Dawn” in a walk off cameo as the father of the hero boys suddenly thrust into the center of WWIII. If being forced to shout “Avenge me!” was disappointing overkill dictated by the screenplay, in the moments leading up to it Stanton’s solemn tough love, spoken plainly, still winningly came through. It was a different kind of fatherly affection then what he played two years later in, of all things, “Pretty in Pink”, as the broken-down elder to Molly Ringwald, where she took care of him as more than he took care of her, a sad sack vulnerability completely apart from his “Red Dawn” unsentimentality.

Stanton was famously reticent off screen, at least about the topic of himself, as Bilge Ebiri’s interview with him four years ago noted, but he brought that silence with him to the screen. When Ebiri asked about “Paris, Texas” Stanton replied: “I related to the fact that he didn’t talk for a half an hour in the film”, deeming it “The syndrome of being silent.” Indeed, in “The Straight Story” (1999), Stanton played Lyle Straight, the brother of Richard Farnsworth’s Alvin, who rode his tractor 240 miles from Iowa to Wisconsin just to see his long-estranged flesh and blood one last time with both of them teetering on death’s door. Because their meeting cannot arrive until the climax, Stanton is barely in the film, and while another movie might have made time for a Big Speech or a Meaningful Conversation, director David Lynch valued The Syndrome of Being Silent and simply let Stanton’s presence trigger the catharsis. Indeed, a man who lived so long and did so much and who rarely, right up until the end, ever seemed without a cigarette, always demonstrated, better than most, the value of screen of moderation.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Friday's Old Fashioned: Lucky Night (1939)

Recently I saw someone somewhere on Twitter say something to the effect of: do you ever watch movies from the late thirties and think, “Hey, Hitler is at the height of his power right now”? I usually don’t, but I did as I watched Norman Taurog’s “Lucky Night”, an MGM screwball comedy featuring Myrna Loy and Robert Taylor that debuted theatrically in May 1939, just a few months ahead of Hitler kicking off WWII. That’s not to suggest the führer’s presence overtly looms over the proceedings. He is never mentioned, thank goodness, and the film is assuredly not a genuine drama, more a screwball comedy with earnest overtones, though that earnestness resonates. The Great Depression still lingered, after all, as the world was pitched at the doorstep of chaos, and both of these factors can be felt throughout “Lucky Night”, where the contrasting ideas of security and uncertainty run straight into each other.


That makes itself apparent from the get-go as Cora Jordan (Myrna Loy) politely rejects the offer of some moneyed suitor much to the chagrin of her father (Henry O’Neill), and then tells her pops she doesn’t want his help either. No, she wants to want it make it on her own, sort of akin to “Sullivan’s Travels”, yearning to live like a regular person rather than a pampered one, deliberately turning her back on all her family name provides and marching straight into the mean old world to see if she can survive, albeit all wrapped up in a fur coat. In no time she has met Bill Overton (Robert Taylor), homeless yet impeccably tailored, a byproduct of his homelessness stemming less from life than his own propensity to gamble what he has, and when he enlists her in a small scheme, they win big, and then bigger still, getting drunk and tying the knot.

That sort of plot development sounds ripe for requisite rom shenanigans, particularly when Cora’s impulsive union makes the morning papers and causes her father to come looking for her. You can see their Lucky Night give way to a Morning of Regret and then an Afternoon and Evening of falling in love all over again and deciding they do want to be married. That isn’t on the movie’s mind, however, as even if the early hours induce pangs of regret, Cora and Bill quickly set those aside to try and make this marriage work.

Loy and Taylor play their post-marital scenes less with a rom com bliss than a kind of manic insistence, incessantly throwing their arms around one another, not so much whispering sweet nothings as shouting affirmations, doing up their apartment to emphatically demonstrate it as a domestic haven, throwing themselves into this like they think they should, like him going off to work every morning with a massive smile plastered to his face, evoking more artificiality than authenticity. And even if Cora comes to appreciate the security this regimented lifestyle provides, Bill almost instantly sours on it. Indeed, a shot on their living room sofa as he dejectedly attempts to explain his longing for “the fun” to start mirrors the shot when they first meet, where he is spread out across a park bench at night, poor, perhaps, but also wholly cool and uncaring.


Frankly, “Lucky Night” doesn’t quite know how to resolve this difference of lifestyle opinion, splitting them up as Cora returns to live with her father while Bill gets good and drunk and then shows up at Cora’s home to say his piece to her father and then skedaddle. Instead, Cora’s father gets drunk with Bill, and Bill falls asleep in Cora’s bed where she finds him, assuming he has come to patch things up, the movie ending with them in a confused kind of embrace. Maybe that’s right. Maybe when Hitler was at the peak of his power all you could do was get drunk and hope things would work themselves out on their own.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The A-Team

In 2002 a crack filmmaking unit was relegated to rom com prison by the all-male Hollywood Council of Seven for a crime they didn’t commit. These women promptly escaped from the set of Matthew McConaughey’s Cannonball Rum to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the Hollywood illuminati, they survive as actors of fortune. If your movie has a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team.


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Some Drivel On...Rotten Tomatoes

Rotten Tomatoes, a website launched pre-Y2K in which myriad movie reviews are aggregated and then tabulated per some mathematical formula in order to determine whether a film in question is viewed, as a whole, positively or negatively, reached peak awfulness this past December when Slant Magazine (where, full disclosure, I used to write) published its review of “Star Wars: Rogue One.” There, the valiant commenter Joe Mack said: “I didn’t read the review but just in case you can’t do math your score 2.5/4 equals 62.5% which means this is fresh not rotten as far as how you should be reviewing things on rotten tomatoes.” I think I just stared at that comment for three minutes with my jaw open. It suggested the review itself and what it was attempting to impart as antithetical to Rotten Tomatoes, mere words, means to an end, existing for no other reason than to prop up a score that serves all the other scores.

Rotten Tomatoes, as the site’s oral history explains, was begun in 1998 by a Cal-Berkeley student named Senh Duong who yearned to gather reviews of his beloved Jackie Chan movies in one place. That suggests a site in which the original intent really was the reviews themselves, to help direct people to them. Then again, listen to Duong’s introductory anecdote: “My first visit to the theater was in junior high. And it was a double bill — Raw Deal starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Cobra with Sylvester Stallone). My friends and I thought Cobra was the better of the two.” Though the original motivation for assigning Fresh and Rotten ratings to each movie is sketchy in the oral history, you can nevertheless detect the genesis of the so-called Tomatometer in that anecdote, whereby nuance is jettisoned for delineation, whereby movies are pitted against one another, whereby the end point is Good or Bad and the in-between, the place where so much film lives, is heaved over the side.


The Tomatometer is, per Brett Ratner, non-filmmaking luminary who never made a bad movie he wouldn’t try to not take the blame for, “the destruction of (the movie) business.” That quote appears in a recent Brooks Barnes piece for The New York Times where Ratner, as well as other unnamed Hollywood bigwigs, point the finger for their industry’s woebegone 2017 summer box office squarely at the numerous rotten ratings of Rotten Tomatoes. This is because the site, as Barnes outlines, is now in something like cahoots with online movie ticket site Fandango where the official Tomatometer rating is posted, meaning, if the Hollywood bigwigs are to be believed, a rotten score inspires consumers to stay home. Maybe that’s true, though the veracity can be debated (though if the veracity is ever truly confirmed then it means, contrary to the common refrain, that critics do matter) and anyway, as the NYT piece notes, Hollywood bigwigs are just as quick to embrace favorable Rotten Tomatoes scores as they are to denounce unfavorable ones, belying marketing as the bigwigs’ weapon of choice more than moviemaking.

This all signals a move into something like a post-review world, one perhaps explicitly prefaced by none other than the patron saint of movie critics, the late Roger Ebert, who along with the late Gene Siskel pioneered the thumbs up, thumbs down movie review approach, which is basically what Rotten Tomatoes is too, and Duong, in the oral history, says as much. Of course, Siskel & Ebert augmented their talk show with written analysis and that analysis is not something that exists just to skim so you can find the grade at the bottom to yell RIGHT! or WRONG! Reviews are intended to enlighten and expand a moviegoer’s experience, to help them make further sense of what they have seen, whether they agree or not, to wrestle with how a film was made and what that means, which is really all critics care about in the first place, and which so often anymore seems so far away in the discourse as to be strangely, sadly beside the point.