' Cinema Romantico

Friday, July 22, 2016

Friday's Old Fashioned: On an Island with You (1948)

“On An Island With You” opens with Rosalind Reynolds (Esther Williams) doing the backstroke through an idyllic lagoon while an apparent captain in the armed forces, Ricardo Montez (Ricardo Montalban), leans against a tree, crooning a tune and strumming a ukulele, though it turns out he’s not just serenading Esther but serenading Yvonne Toro (Chyd Charise) too. Then, we realize this is merely a Hollywood production, some sort of vaguely defined movie within a movie, which is a pretty shrewd strategic move. Esther Williams movies were less about the story than the show tunes and bouts of aquatic merriment during show tunes, and so having your movie of show tunes and bouts of aquatic merriment during show tunes be about making a movie of show tunes and bouts of aquatic merriment during show tunes sounds like the best of both worlds.


Sounds like it, I said, because director Richard Thorpe chooses to overly focus on story – story!!! – ballooning a begging-to-be 75 minute trifle to 107 minutes instead, bogging down the movie with the presence of Lt. Lawrence Kingslee (Peter Lawford), a military advisor to the movie within a movie, who fell in love with Rosalind during a USO Tour and now aims to win her hand in marriage, even though she’s engaged to Ricardo, a classic love triangle that packs minimal heat and even less entertainment value. Esther Williams had her charms as an actress but she needed something or someone to play off of and in this scenario gets neither. Instead she gets a barely invested Lawford who spends the entire movie reciting his lines as he’s absent-mindedly saying them while sitting in a hot tub. At the same time, the screenplay by Charles Martin and Hans Wilhelm forgets it needs to make Ricardo an unlikable character until Rosalind suddenly needs a reason to love Lawrence and then hastily tries to turn us against Ricardo by making up some baggage on the fly. But who even knows why she loves Lawrence in the first place. While having dinner one night Lawrence tells Rosalind to take her last bite, “like a good girl.” “You would have made a good mother,” she says. “I was thinking the same about you,” he replies. Wait, the mother for his hypothetical kids or his mother?

“On an Island with You” takes its title from the sequence in which Rosalind and Lawrence wind up stranded on an island where she will ostensibly finally fall for his charms. Of course, they only become stranded there because Lawrence actively absconds with her, which sounds an awful lot like being held against your will. That probably would have flown if these scenes had any sort of amusing earnestness, but they don’t. It’s the weirdest thing: he’s not trying to make her fall in love with him, he simply expects her to reciprocate his own love, as if he’s entitled to it. You keep wishing she’d just sock him in the jaw and swim away.

What’s more, the movie itself seems to know just how little bounce there is to this stranded-on-an-island storyline, considering that it doesn’t show up until the movie’s mid-portion and then cuts back a couple times to action in the main location which betrays the film’s casting of Jimmy Durante to prop up a few Esther Williams-less scenes, and even goes so far as to add a dream sequence on the island to ensure that we don’t go too long without a song and an aquatic ballet, as if it inherently knows no one is watching for the story and yet cannot help but keep sticking to it anyway.

Though “On an Island with You” is the kind of movie that benefited handsomely from Technicolor, and as such probably looked real good on a legit big screen, it also made me think that it would have been right at home in the Youtube era, when Esther and everyone else could have just said good riddance to the piddling narrative, sang, swam and danced, recorded it, and uploaded it to the Internet. There's music! There's dancing! There's romance! And all in five minute bursts at a time! What else do you need?!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Tiffany Trump, a Sofia Coppola Film

“She has a decided predilection for showing empty moments in human lives and deals with characters who continually expose the void within themselves.” This is how Anna Rogers described Sofia Coppola’s oeuvre in a wonderful analysis of the impeccable director in 2007 for Senses of Cinema, and I thought of that line as I watched Tiffany Trump, daughter of Donald and Marla Maples, speak this past Tuesday night at the Republican National Convention. The twenty-two year old Tiffany, recent graduate of Penn, California resident as opposed to an east coaster like her father and three half-siblings, was tasked with imparting the notion that her pops is a family man, enlisted to soften the bronzed ogre who once told Buzzfeed “Marla used to say, ‘I can’t believe you’re not walking Tiffany down the street,’ you know in a carriage. Right, I’m gonna be walking down Fifth Avenue with a baby in a carriage. It just didn’t work.”

That guy, however, the one that wouldn’t walk down Fifth Avenue with a baby carriage bearing his own flesh and blood, still seemed to emerge, inadvertently but tellingly, in Tiffany’s speech. Where some people claimed to see humanization in Tiffany’s slight anecdotes about her father, Ruth Graham of Slate saw a “sad, vague tribute”, “praise (that) was edged with sadness: He’s good with advice, (Tiffany) said, but ‘he keeps it short.’” “It’s telling,” Claire Landsbaum observed for The Cut, “that neither anecdote she chose to include actually involves her father’s physical presence.” That might be attributed to Marla choosing to move her daughter across the country to California, but then Donald is the same guy that flew to the Iowa State Fair last year to take other kids for rides on his helicopter, and I can’t help but wonder if Tiffany caught that footage on the NBC Evening News and wondered why her dad never took her for rides in his luxurious whirlybird. “Her father,” Graham notes, “doesn’t follow her on Twitter, and he rarely mentions her.” And if that sounds like maudlin millennial nonsense (waaaaah! He doesn’t follow me on Twitter!), well hey, it kinda is, a signal of what constitutes important values in these ludicrous times, where even if Tiffany has a vaunted Snap Pack, she can’t get a follow from dear old Dad.



The pain that a lack of a Twitter follow might cause is something that seems ripe for a Sofia Coppola movie, since she is a skillful chronicler of both the toll of emotional isolation and the moneyed morose, whether it’s the young Queen of France suddenly plunked down in Versailles where she doesn’t know a soul or a confused newlywed sitting on a window ledge overlooking the expanse of Tokyo, inundated with people yet all alone. And Coppola observes her characters, Rogers writes for Senses of Cinema, “Through the use of dead time, liminal images that hang between dream and reality, a wandering and restless camera-eye that mirrors the gaze of the protagonists, and discrepancies between visual and sound tracks, crisis can be directly translated into the image.” And the story of Tiffany Trump, which has been less documented than her attention-craving father’s, now eking out in various details scattered across the cyber-megacosm, comes across readymade for Sofia’s image-heavy style, a perfect aesthetic to expose the void within her subject.

Think of the recording session of Tiffany’s ill-fated pop ditty “Like a Bird” that has been making the unfortunate Interwebs rounds, a song with nothingness posing as lyrics and swathed in autotune, so much that you leave it with less of a feel for who Tiffany Trump is than you had before cranking it, and which I imagine Sofia transforming into less of a cruelly funny “You’ve Got the Touch” and more the improbable melancholy of “More Than This.” Think of Tiffany missing her mother’s appearance on “Dancing with the Stars” to stay at school and study, which sounds like the sort of existential crisis only the rich & famous know, but that I have no doubt Sofia could translate into something uniquely heartbreaking, Erin Andrews chortling on the TV while Tiffany wistfully looks on, a Romanesque art book in her lap. And Coppola would wring genuine ache from places where seemingly none should be found, putting Tiffany side by side with the storefront window of Tiffany & Company, for whom she was named, in the dying afternoon light, rendering rich girl tragedy.

Still, no image could carry more impact than the one broadcast across the nation on Tuesday, one so supremely cinematic that it momentarily transcended the rageful space in which it occurred, moving me in a way I found as beautiful as I did strange. You can be alone, of course, amidst the multitudes, and that’s what Tiffany Trump was, specifically standing up for a man who couldn’t even bother to be there, projecting himself instead on a video screen from the comfort of New York, which is where he’s always been while his daughter has always been somewhere else. After the speech, scribes inevitably weighed in on how well Tiffany did or did not do. I wondered if her Dad might pull up those Internet report cards, scribble a few notes and send them to his daughter by email.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Shout-Out to the Extra: Star Trek IV Version

Shout-Out to the Extra is a sporadic series in which Cinema Romantico shouts out the extras, the background actors, the bit part players, the almost out of your sight line performers who expertly round out our movies with epic blink & you’ll miss it care.

Maybe you missed the moment. In the aftermath of his team’s upset to those uppity ups from New Haven, Baylor’s Taurean Prince was asked by a reporter how his team got out-rebounded by Yale. Prince answered by explicating precisely what a rebound was and then observing that Yale got more of those than his team did. Mic drop. It was, as both Slate’s Josh Levin and director/screenwriter/producer Jerry Zucker noted, a version of the ambiguous syntax that so many of Zucker’s films, like the majestic “Airplane!”, used to such grand effect. Now I don’t think that Prince necessarily thought about that when he said the line. I’m sure he was peeved post-loss and peeved about a dumb question and felt like indulging his inner-Popovich. But sometimes a person can be a gifted comic without really even knowing it.

Maybe you know the story, maybe you don’t. It was first recounted on StarTrek.com 11 years ago and has been cited many times since, particularly as we inch ever closer to the latest “Star Trek” film. It concerns Layla Sarakalo, a San Francisco resident in the mid-80s, who learned one unfortunate morning that her car had been towed because a movie was being filmed on her block and she had missed the signs threatening to haul her and other neighborhood cars away if they were not moved to make way for the director’s chair and other moviemaking accoutrement. Not having the necessary money to get her car back. Ms. Sarakalo hit on the idea of scoring some quick cash to save her vehicle by working for the movie being filmed on her block as an extra. That film was “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.”


Maybe you know the scene in “The Voyage Home.” The crew of the Enterprise, who are, by necessity, aboard a cloaked Klingon vessel, have traveled back in time, to 1986 San Francisco, for reasons of requisite Earth-saving. You know how they do. But their ship has been drained of power and to acquire the necessary power to travel forward in time they plot to reel it in from a nuclear powered submarine. Chekov and Uhura are dispatched to find the submarine. They can’t, which leads to the classic scene of Chekhov, a Russian, at the tail-end of the Cold War asking passerby the location of the nuclear vessels while an incredulous, stone-faced cop looks on. No one is willing to help…save for one woman.

That woman was played by Ms. Sarakalo. She was not, it seems, meant to say a line. She was just an extra. She was supposed to behave like all the other extras and look at this crazy Ruskie with bug eyes and keep walking. Sarakalo did not. Told to “act naturally”, that’s precisely what she did. (Watch below. Sarakalo enters at the 38 second mark.)



Sarakalo plays this moment wonderfully, brilliantly. She plays it like a local who’s just been asked by a tourist for the location of some off the beaten path boutique hotel. She sort of scratches her head that way you do when you’re suddenly put on the thinking spot, and then she answers by not only echoing exactly what Chekov has just said, but by putting the perfect pregnant pause between “I think it’s across the bay” and “In Alameda.” It’s like she momentarily morphed into Jack Benny. And when you consider that she wasn’t even supposed to have a line, and that she just spoke off the cuff, it becomes that much more incredible, innately leaving a space for the non-existent rimshot, displaying a seemingly natural comedic timing that fit right into the wholly comedic motion picture.

Because she spoke, and because anyone who has a line in a movie is required to be registered for the Screen Actors Guild, the producers quickly enrolled Sarakalo in SAG rather than simply cut her line. Well of course they did! You can’t cut comic gold! She was never seen again, apparently moving on to run a Paris fashion house, and good for her. Yet I wonder if the motion pictures missed out. I see many a purportedly funny movie these days with professionals that consistently fail to be anywhere near as funny as Sarakalo, just trying to get her car back, was in a handful of seconds.

Pour one out for the extra.


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Meadowland

“Meadowland” opens with the five year old son of Sarah (Olivia Wilde) and Phil (Luke Wilson) vanishing from a gas station. Then, director Reed Morano cuts to a year later, long after what must have been the initial shock and fury has worn down, and mother and father are left down a few grams of their souls. Sarah acts out the usual ways, with drinking and drugs and wanton what-have-you, but that is nowhere near as interesting as the way Wilde simply strips most affectations out of her performance. With discernible bags under her eyes and pale white skin she often looks like a ghost, like when she wanders through a Times Square crowd with the camera to her back, like she’s faceless, passing through a life she already left or no longer has need for.


There are elements of “Meadowland” that reminded me of Stewart O’Nan’s 2008 novel “Songs for the Missing”, which is about a family coping with their child gone missing. Morano’s view of the world here is much darker than O’Nan’s, but the storytelling style is similar, in the way that the investigation into the disappearance takes a backseat to the emotional grappling, and how psychological acuity is wrung not from big grandstanding moments but smaller ones where little seems to be happening. Granted, O’Nan does a sharper job of allowing everyday chit-chat to communicate something larger whereas “Meadowland’s” script, by Chris Rossi, too often over-literalizes, like an early moment when Sarah, a schoolteacher, has her class interpret poetry. “You don’t know when it’s going to be light again. It might just keep getting darker,” one of her students says.

Still, both the film and book have characters that are stuck in place, unable to move forward, as if they’ve reached a fork in the road that merely yields dead ends in both directions. Sarah keeps proclaiming that she knows her son’s alive, but “Meadowland” isn’t so na├»ve to believe that just because you think good things will happen they will. Eventually Phil calls her out and Sarah never makes a counter-argument; she knows he’s right.

“Meadowland”, however, as the title implies, is not just about Sarah, or Phil, but a whole host of people, a community, struggling with the bad turns of their own lives. Phil’s troubled brother Tim (Giovanni Ribisi) shows up with no place to go as just about the worst possible time. Phil attends a support group and meets another father, Pete (John Leguizamo), whose child was kidnapped and killed, and who expresses fantasies about hurting the murderer. Phil is as written as a cop, which you fear will be brought back around in some way convenient to the plot, and it does, with Phil getting the murderer’s address for Pete. But Pete, and Morano, shut it right down. This film isn’t about confrontation because it grasps the uselessness of confrontation when what’s done is done.


Sarah, meanwhile, founds herself emotionally ensnared by a student, Adam (Ty Simpkins), with a foster mother (Elisabeth Moss, a powerful cameo) who seems to have turned her back on him. This is one of the moments when Rossi pushes too hard at drawing a parallel, allowing Sarah’s mothering instincts to move from her own son to Adam, which affords an overly dramatic climax that borrows heavily from “Return” which itself borrowed heavily from “Sherrybaby.” Even so, “Meadowland” admirably doesn’t push to resolve its many loose ends, and ultimately the film is like a long sentence ending on an ellipsis rather than a period.

The film’s finest moment occurs midway through when Sarah and Tim are sitting on a roof, smoking pot, losing themselves in anything that isn’t what they feel every other hour of the day. The sky above them is brilliantly illuminated with ribbons of orange dancing in the blue, and Moran is sure to include the sky in the frame as much as the two characters, almost like they are merging, like Sarah and Tim want nothing more than simply to slip the surly bonds of earth.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Glassland

“Glassland” isn’t so much about an addict, or even addiction, as it is about the person marooned in the direct orbit of an addict, and how that marooned person is equally affected by the addict’s erratic, egocentric decisions in the name of his or her addiction. In writer/director Gerard Barrett’s Dublin-set “Glassland” the addict is Jean (Toni Collette) and her willing yet frustrated caretaker is John (Jack Reynor), her son. He wants to help and often does, yet just as often become so exhausted from trying to help that he checks out and merely enables, voluntarily pouring her drinks, with a “why-the-hell-not?” glimmer in his eyes, as if to aid in her quest to drink herself to death. That seems to be her mission, anyway, given an early scene where a doctor councils that if she doesn’t stop drinking, she’ll die, before she promptly turns back up at their shabby home, one where only a little light ever seems to stream through the constantly closed curtains, drunkenly passed out.


Eventually John will get his mom to rehab, but this is not a movie that believes a quick montage in rehab cures all ails. No, Barrett’s movie is a slow-moving mood piece where the mood is prevailingly glum, an Irish version of a British Kitchen Sink drama, where the disillusionment has trickled down from society to the individuals who feel entirely isolated from it. There is very little of an outside world in “Glassland”, merely these little pockets the few people inhabit and their seemingly insolvable problems. Those problems are recounted in an elliptical storytelling style that occasionally demands such viewer scrutiny that on a few counts you might be asking “wait, what happened?” after the credits roll. But even if you occasionally yearn for more narrative clarity, “Glassland” still effectively conveys a quiet intensity, even in its hazier moments, one that manifests itself most often in the pained face of John, a character pitched between wanting to explode and battling to keep it together.

If addiction movies often trend toward histrionics, this one prefers to solemnly brood. The lone monologue belongs to Jean in which she cycles through her life’s bottoming out, which Collette serves not with any kind of grand passion but as if she’s skipped past admitting to she can’t control her addiction and recognizing a higher power and simply settled for examining her past errors. But notice how Barrett films this monologue – Jean sits on the couch, John lays on the sofa, as if she’s the therapist, and he’s the patient. Indeed, the painful-to-take admittance is that her first and third sons are what drove her to drink, because she wanted to forget them, which she more or less did, and that the only son she really cared for was John, sweet John, who she babies even if he’s more routinely having to baby her.


Watching Reynor in this moment, however, is even better than listening to Collette, as he lays on the couch, like an unwilling patient in therapy, and gradually allows his breathing to pick up to the point where you can see his chest heaving up and down, as if he can’t take it but has to. Though she’s explaining why she is the way she is, she’s also explaining why he is the way he is. The emergent irony is that for all this responsibility, he remains something of a manboy, glimpsed in his video game playing sessions with his friend, never afforded the space to grow up for always having to remain at his mom’s side. It’s a strange fate, to be a responsible caretaker even if you’ve simultaneously failed to completely leave the adolescent cocoon.

Now most movies would have him cross a threshold, however small, by the end, but “Glassland” never makes that readily apparent. It doesn’t collapse into nihilism, but it also forgoes sunny optimism; it’s up in the air. That idea is most acutely captured in the face of Reynor, in the recurring shots of him sitting in his taxi, staring watch what? Nothing, really, just staring out the window, and even if we never really knew exactly what John is thinking in these moments, Reynor effuses the sensation of a man with a lot on his mind and nowhere to put it, all of it building up, threatening to burst. You hope he won’t. You wonder if he will.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Naked Gun 2 ½ (1991)

There is a moment in “The Naked Gun 2 ½” when Lt. Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) has come to a blues bar, with decorative portraits of Michael Dukakis, to have a drink. “Gimme the strongest thing you got,” Drebin tells his waiter. A muscular gentleman straight from Golds Gym arrives. “On second thought,” reckons Drebin, startled, “I’ll have a White Russian.” The waiter pauses, looks directly into the camera and shakes his head “nah.” That was always the difference with Lt. Drebin, that staunch refusal to break the fourth wall. Later, he enters his police precinct and humorously inadvertently breaks up a hostage situation. He doesn’t even know he’s done it. When his Captain, Ed Hocken (George Kennedy), congratulates him on a job well done, Drebin looks all around, even up in the air, dumbfounded, as if someone might have written the reason for the buffoonery in the sky. Drebin was never smarter than the movie he was in; he was in the movie he was in and just trying to keep up with the nonsensical world around him.


Watching a cinematic offering like “The Naked Gun 2 ½” is an exercise in trying to keep up too. It’s a conveyer belt of jokes and gags, ceaselessly coming at you, so if you see something like “give me the strongest thing you got” and it doesn’t quite land, something else will a few moments later, like Drebin’s admission that he inadvertently displaced an entire Amazonian tribe. It’s the law of ZAZ averages. ZAZ, of course, refers to Team ZAZ – that is, David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker, the filmmaking trio responsible for “Airplane!”, “Top Secret!”, “The Naked Gun” and the TV series “Police Squad!”, upon which “The Naked Gun” was based. When it came time to make “The Naked Gun” sequel, inevitable after the original’s impressive $78 million haul, however, it only came bearing one Z – David, that is, marking the follow-up as “un film de David Zucker.”

I think about this because David Zucker is a noted environmentalist. And I think about how “The Naked Gun 2 ½” was released in the summer of 1991, only a few months after the conclusion of the first Gulf War, which was more complicated than “It Was About Oil”, but seriously……it was about oil. And so Zucker rooted his laugh-out-loud spoof to something genuinely political in the form of energy policy. The principal villain is Big Oil, in the form of a ghoulish Robert Goulet as ghoulish Quentin Hapsburg, who furrows his brow at all the inanity pitched toward him by Nielsen with comic intensity, as if he’s always in the midst of trying to piece together what’s just been said, not being able to do it, and then giving up. Hapsburg and his coal, oil and nuclear industry cronies will stop at nothing to prevent Dr. Albert Meinheimer (Richard Griffiths) from pitching Bush I on a platform of renewable energy. This is traditionally where the interwebs’ aggrieved swoop in to harangue about broaching politics in a movie where O.J. Simpson’s groinal region is impaled by a cactus. But then, I’m not inserting politics into the equation because the movie itself already has.

Summer tentpole movies have increasingly turned serious, attempting to graft on solemn messages, often with parallels to real world issues. In and of itself this doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but these attempts at commentary more often than not transform what should be brisk entertainments into slogs. “The Naked Gun 2 ½”, on the other hand, builds a pro-clean energy message into a brisk entertainment, never putting the moral above the laughs. If anything, the moral becomes more profound because of the laughs.


Here, the world is an inherently farcical place, where security guards ogle the clock connected to a few sticks of dynamite about to blow them sky high and Hapsburg almost, but can’t quite, figure out the quartet he so desperately wants to topple are standing right in front of him in ludicrous disguises. This world, in a way, is no different from our world right now, or any other world of any other time, an illogical place that we can’t grasp. “Is it just me,” Drebin asks Ed at the blues bar, “or has the whole world gone crazy?” “It’s just a small percentage of the population,” says Ed. Then Ed notices their waiter is pantsless. It’s a pretty stupid joke, really, though Kennedy’s reaction, looking away not so much in horror as sheer befuddlement is priceless. This is what they’re up against! The whole world is crazy!

Frank Drebin might be a little pompous, a little self-impressed a la Inspector Closeau, but he’s still a man insists on taking world at face value, which is repeatedly evinced in the form of Zucker’s classic ambiguous syntax. For all the film’s funny stuff, there really is nothing more humorous than Drebin failing to grasp exactly what he and someone else are discussing. “The Naked Gun 2 ½” builds a different world than most modern comedies, where characters are so often desperate to let you know they are above the humor. Frank Drebin is not above the humor because he doesn’t even realize it is humor. This is the world he inhabits, and crazy as it is, he is trying his ridiculously dogged best to protect it.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Unwinding with Rayna

Yesterday was a long day, and it was a long week and a half before yesterday, and so let's all just take a moment to unwind by watching Rose Byrne be funnier than anyone in a movie in 3 to 5 years.