' Cinema Romantico

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Southside with You



“Southside with You” is undoubtedly different from any normal cinematic Presidential biography. It is not a summation of a whole Presidency or an in-depth treatise on a President’s defining event. It is not even something like, say, 1940’s “Abe Lincoln in Illinois”, which chronicled the titular legend’s time preceding the Presidency. No, “Southside with You” is a snapshot of a pre-political fray President as director Richard Tanne presents Obama (Parker Sawyers) simply as Barack, not a leader or even a future leader but a guy still trying to figure himself out. And he is helped considerably in that process by Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) as Tanne frames his movie with the first date, so to speak, of Barack and Michelle in something like a Southside version of “Before Sunrise”, right down to the closing shots that cast them apart post-date sitting down to marinate in the memory of what just happened.

The pesky requisite stakes, like “Before Sunrise”, remain wondrously modest, stemming from Barack and Michelle, working together at a Chicago law firm, trying to decide whether their getting together to attend a community meeting at a local church truly constitutes a date. She says it no; he says yes. He does his best to make it a date, taking her to an art exhibit, buying her something to eat, going out for a mug of beer, as the film’s true foundation becomes their conversation, ranging from light-hearted arguments over the best Stevie Wonder album deeper matter of their personal lives and far-reaching societal concerns, the latter of which plays less like foreshadowing than the characters’ inherent natures. Their socially conscious discussions are actually an interesting contrast to the more whimsical deliberations of “Before Sunrise’s” Jesse and Celine, which is not to cast dispersions on the talk in “Before Sunrise” but to merely observe how upbringing and social position can inform chit-chat.

This is particularly true of Michelle. “Southside with You”, let’s be clear, is not just The Barack Obama Story, a rom com in which a kindly cad charms his date into falling in love. Michelle is allowed to make very clear that her reluctance to call their day a “date” stems from her place in the world as a black woman. To be his workplace superior and see him socially might well constitute two strikes against her and she’s fearful of taking that chance. At the same time, if Barack gets a moment to question the legitimacy of her job devotion, Michelle gets the same moment to call out Barack. They are equals, and frankly, “Southside with You” lets it come through that Michelle had her shit together sooner than Barack, quietly underscored in a few shots where Tanne has her stand taller in the frame, looking down at her future husband, like she’s telling him to catch up.


Embodying POTUS and FLOTUS is no menial task, of course, but both Sawyers and Sumpter are up to it. As Michelle, Sumpter allows a vulnerability to emerge beneath her dignity, demonstrating how the latter is not just inborn but sculpted and maintained. Sawyers, meanwhile, forgoes simple impersonation. His Barack is introduced in an undershirt, smoking and reading in an easy chair, a Hero Shot if there ever was one, a frame that Robert Mitchum would not have looked out of place in. And Sawyers uses this moment to inform his Obama, evincing a loose swagger, a man with little money in his pockets but a lot of cool confidence in how he speaks and thinks.

This comes home in the riveting community meeting where Sawyers performance and the movie impeccably harmonize, demonstrating Obama’s pre-eminent ability to work a crowd. With his fellow Chicagoans disheartened by being unable to score funding for a community center, Barack slyly takes the meeting’s reigns, holding everyone, including Michelle, in the palm of his hand, as he soothes their pain even as he keeps it real. And if Michelle is transfixed by Barack’s impeccable oratory skills, she is nonetheless intelligent enough to recognize this is genuine civil service as a means to charismatically show off, a duality that is not accidental. It would have been easy to reduce Barack to mere myth, or render him strictly as “one of us”, but in this sequence the entire Obama emerges.

He is calculating but caring, earnest but intent on getting exactly what he wants, less a compromiser than a tell-it-like-it-could-be go-getter. And even if you didn’t already know he and Michelle wound up together, in the face of this scene, well, you would be hard-pressed not to believe that they were a reality.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Patriots Day

Near the end of Peter Berg’s Boston Marathon Bombing docudrama “Patriots Day”, right after the last bomber is hauled out of that infamous Watertown backyard boat, a few cops enter a bar, presumably to toast the long week being over, and the camera momentarily catches sight of a motivational poster which says this: “Remembering Isn’t Enough.” That may as well be the mantra for this docudrama that does not want to remember all the terrible, and good, events of that April 2013 week so much as re-live them with a ferocious pace and boots on the ground aesthetic. Yet this in-the-moment narrative viewpoint also negates an ability to pull back and consider what happened from a wider perspective forcing Berg to convey meaning in characters and situations and little details in-between, which he does with alternating success.


Initially “Patriots Day” comes across determined to lash its narrative to fictional Boston police detective Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg) who, having mucked up with the commissioner (John Goodman), is trying to get back in good graces by working the Marathon’s finish line. It quickly becomes clear, however, as his getting back into good graces subplot almost immediately falls by the wayside, that Tommy is merely meant to provide a through line, a familiar face you can latch on to in each scene. (Tommy’s wife, played by Michelle Monaghan, vanishes virtually the same instant she is seen.) Frankly, the movie should have jettisoned him to focus exclusively on its Boston Strong ensemble.

That ensemble ranges from classic locals, like J.K. Simmons as the Watertown police chief, to a few foreign MIT students, allowing a more multi-cultural picture of Boston to emerge. Simmons in particular does an effective job communicating a contentment with his place in the world from his dry, down-to-earth demeanor. At the same time, I wish Berg had given Patriots Day itself, a sacred event in Boston, more of its gleeful due rather than simply employing his set-up as a means to foreshadow all the bad things that are about to happen. If he had, he would not have necessarily needed to conclude with archival footage of Boston Red Sox legend David Ortiz shouting “This is our f***ing city!” because his movie would have already shown it.

Even so, in the aftermath of the bombing, Berg strongly evinces the incredible haste that goes hand in hand with such momentous decision making, where split seconds are required to make determinations that will reverberate forever. In a small role as FBI agent Richard DesLauriers, Kevin Bacon allows a “I gotta get this right” tension to emerge in his lines and mannerisms that acutely summarizes the pressure of every choice. And while the film neatly explicates the technological particulars with which law enforcement was able to ferret out the Tsarnaev Brothers, by also having to stick to its docudrama immediacy, the larger picture of America’s surveillance state is non-existent. In this context, the surveillance state is only for good because it only exists to get the bad guys.


Ah yes, the bad guys. They are not apparitions here, even though Berg employs actual surveillance footage of them too, particularly of Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff), younger brother to Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze), but fully present, in a way, as we follow them on their whole journey from bombing to the manhunt. This means the film forgoes the specifics of their radicalization, aside, kinda, from one brief inquiry of their brief hostage, MIT student Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), of whether or not he believes Muslims were responsible for 9/11. This, however, comes across in the filmmaking language more like a psychopath and a stoner disconnected from reality. And maybe that’s the case. It might sound insensitive to say, but Alex Wolff gives a pretty chilling performance as Dzhokhar, like someone out of his depth who’s too detached to know it, transforming his bro-ish line readings into a statement of entitled non-purpose, turning the slurping of cereal milk while watching propaganda videos into a manifesto for his cluelessness.

That cluelessness actually accounts for some of the movie’s most frightening moment in which the bombers take Meng hostage in his own Mercedes. The real Meng said his decision to eventually make a run for it was the most difficult of his life and the movie evinces that comment. It’s not nail-biting; it’s dig-your-fingernails-into-your-shoulder-so-hard-the-skin-starts-bleeding. You know that Meng survives, yet Berg dials up the tension to such a degree that absolutely anything seems possible. It’s a sequence that might elicit accusations of exploitation, but which I thought was the movie making its point, much more so than the “do you think this can be prevented?” riposte Wahlberg gets to give that is less a thesis than a possible awards moment.

No, in this Mercedes, the Tsarnaev Brothers are less powerful militants than a pair of hotheaded lone wolves who did not succeed in making any kind of statement in the name of any kind of movement so much as employ no good reason to scare an entire city of out its damn mind.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Fences

Before “Fences” has even faded in we already hear Denzel Washington’s voice. That is apropos. His voice lords over “Fences.” I don’t mean his auteur voice, considering he directed this film, but his voice voice. There is a traditional soundtrack, yes, sure, but Washington’s voice is the true soundtrack. It’s everywhere, nearly all of the time. At one point he opens a window to holler at God and he sounds louder than the thunder and lightning roiling around outside. Washington has always possessed an authoritative voice, of course, and in everything, from the Oscar winners to the middlebrow box office grabs to the dreck. I don’t remember much of “The Siege” but I remember Washington hollering so hard mid-movie his nose bled. And so it’s no wonder that he would be drawn to “Fences”, August Wilson’s seminal, Pulitzer winning 1983 play, in which a one-time Negro Leagues baseball player turned Pittsburgh garbage man in the 1950s lords over his surroundings with speech since it provides Washington the opportunity to verbally cut loose for damn near two hours. Not that his character is just talking to talk, though he kind of is, though we’ll get to that.


When the film finally does fade in, it finds Washington’s Troy Maxson riding the back of his garbage truck with is longtime co-worker and friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson). As they depart the truck, the camera follows them across the street, down the sidewalk and into Troy’s backyard, where we will remain for a good chunk of the movie. Despite the fine set decoration and the very genuinely weary way in which Washington, who also directed, has Troy to plop into his preferred patio chair, this backyard setting comes to feel like a stage, as does the house when the action occasionally moves indoors. Though each character has something to do, usually, sipping gin or knitting or something else, it never feels exactly lived in, with the hustle and bustle of an actual home. There is one moment when Troy has an argument with his son Cory (Jovan Adepo) in the front yard and as the action prepares to unfold, you can sort of see all the actors execute their blocking to be in the proper position so as not to interfere with the camera’s view. It’s disconcerting.

That theatricality can, of course, be traced to the film’s aforementioned theatrical roots. It’s probably inevitable. Washington and Davis acted these parts on Broadway too and sometimes you can see how well he and Davis know these characters. In the smaller space of the movie screen, where intimacy is always paramount despite the screen’s size, smaller actions and spontaneity are typically the most important tools, and the larger actions and rehearsed tones of Washington and Davis mean that their byplay can feel…well, not unnatural, per se, but the two actors are so comfortable in the rhythms of these characters that you can occasionally hear dialogue effecting a certain tone rather than being lived out, like the lockstep way in which their lines can arrive right on top of one another.

Then again, for the all the complaints I’ve admittedly lobbed so far, Washington has a specific strategy that I still rather admired. He is mostly content not to try and overly cinema-ize “Fences”, instead putting focus squarely on the words. Because, what words! Big speeches, stinging asides, brutal confessions, funny, funny stuff, the latter never more so than Troy orating on the overratedness of Jackie Robinson which sounds exactly like something Troy would say. Indeed, the failure in baseball still gnaws at him, and be blames it all on white man’s America, which is completely fair, even if you can’t help but wonder if he’s inflating his own past athletic ability. After all, he incessantly trumpets the need for a man to take care of his own house, except it’s eventually made clear that his house was bought by the money Troy’s older brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson) was paid for the crippling mental injury he sustained during WWII. In other words, Troy’s self-appointed sage status is something of a fraud, which is precisely what incites these sermons. “You’re not listening,” he declares when he feels like he’s not being heard except the only one who isn’t really listening is him.


Maybe the movie’s best shot is a simple one of Rose leaning against the brick wall, one eye hidden behind the brick, like she has been allowed to be fully present in the face of Troy’s positioning of himself as the man of the house. A mid-movie reveal, however, shifts the playing field as his weaknesses are thrust to the forefront and her strength in the face of such betrayal overrides everything else.

It’s not right to say that Viola Davis steals “Fences.” Because stealing a movie implies a person playing a smaller character sort of doing things on the periphery that become more memorable than what is being done by primary players at the epicenter. Wilson writes the character of Rose so that she assumes center stage and Davis matches that writing with a performance that quietly builds to eventually match the furor of Washington’s. And when it does, Washington does not cede the spotlight. No, Davis rises up, steps into that spotlight and wrests it for herself. She takes over “Fences”, just as Rose assumes the film’s foremost responsibility, a melding that may as well mute all of Washington’s hollering.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Phantom Carriage (1921)

The legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman held much fondness for his fellow countryman Victor Sjöström’s landmark 1921 silent film “The Phantom Carriage.” And according to Turner Classic Movies, Bergman wrote in his autobiography that Sjöström “mostly saw the failings” in “The Phantom Carriage” and “was annoyed by his own sloppiness and lack of skill.” Neutral observers can dispute Sjöström’s assessment of his own skills, of course, and many have since “The Phantom Carriage” is considered seminal not just in the Swedish film lexicon but in the global one too. Still, that defeatism has echoes in the character Sjöström memorably portrays in “The Phantom Carriage” as well as in the attitude of the entire film itself. It is set on New Year’s Eve for a reason, after all, a time of the year that, in the face of getting older, becomes less about laying in gutters with empty bottles for ostensible celebration’s sake than laying in gutters with empty bottles because mostly all we can see as the calendar sets to flip is our own failings.


Perhaps the film’s most famously arresting images involve the titular vehicle, helmed by death itself, typically presented on screen through the use of double exposure, placing the carriage, say, over the image of waves crashing as the carriage comes to collect someone drowning. It doesn’t take any fancy metaphors to explain that these evokes the idea of apparitions, and it retains the spookiness that must have chilled audiences to the bone then. Still, these ghostly images paled in comparison for me to another shot, an earlier shot, set in a cemetery near midnight on New Year’s Eve when the camera picks out a clock tower at about a quarter ‘til midnight. Sjöström includes nothing else in the frame – just the clock tower and darkness all around it. It’s like a lighthouse, warning not of the shore but of time, persnickety time, and all we have failed to do.

That idea of time, so central to December 31st, is part and parcel to the narrative, which is not straight-forward but content to jump in and out and all around, beginning in the present but then drifting back into the past, and further still, a movie layered in three different levels of flashbacks, jumping in and out, like someone’s mind ruminating. Because essentially the film’s principal character – David Holm (Sjöström) – is forced to ruminate over his life.

The film opens with a Salvation Army Nurse named Edit (Astrid Holm) on death’s door as the new year beckons. As she lies in bed, she calls out for David Holm. Why, we do not know, considering he’s a drunken lout, but the flashbacks gradually make it clear that he turned his wife and children away by becoming a drunken lout and now is searching for his wife, perhaps to make amends, or perhaps just to excoriate her. These flashbacks arrive in the wake of David’s death just prior to midnight, marking him as the last person to the die in the old year, meaning that in the new year he will be responsible for shepherding The Phantom Carriage and gathering up the dead. The driver shows up to take David, yet what the driver does instead is less showing his new charge the ropes than showing him how he might reform.

The then American release apparently re-edited the movie into a completely straightforward narrative rather than one skipping around in time, and apparently it sought to render the film as strictly a parable about the dangers of the drink. Those dangers are apparent in the real version too, though nowhere near as prominently, with the alcoholism functioning more as an extension of the terrors of life itself, of the sense that clock is always ticking and that to simply try and keep on keeping on in the face of forever looming death is folly. The women in the movie are almost uniformly presented as tired yet dutiful, bound to what life asks of them whether or not they like it, exasperated with David yet alternately supportive of wanting him to shape up. The choice to do so, of course, is his alone.


“The Phantom Carriage” shares parallels with “A Christmas Carol” in so much as a character is tasked with reforming from his wicked ways by being shown the way things were, the way things are and the way things might be. Of course, “A Christmas Carol” opted for an optimistic ending in spite of so much darkness preceding it while “The Phantom Carriage” is much more nebulous in its conclusion, befitting what Garrison Keillor might have termed the dark Lutheranism of Scandinavia. “Lord, please let my soul come to maturity before it is reaped,” David Holm prays as the film fades out. Except…it feels less like a prayer than a plea. David Holm isn’t just going to be given his happy ending. He’s going to have to earn it. You’re left wondering if he’s really up to a task.

I envisioned a flash-forward ending to 365 days later in which that clock tower would be counting down again to the regret-filled peeling of its bells.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Best Performance(s) at the Golden Globes

Movie awards shows are littered with performers, naturally, yet movie awards shows themselves are so often unperformative. That’s how you wind up with teleprompter-aided introductions where actors botch names or give acceptance speeches where they speak off the cuff, awkwardly reciting names no one knows. And while the 74th Golden Globes that aired this past Sunday night mostly stuck to that script, aside from, say, Kristen Wiig and Steve Carrell fervently committing to their bit, they also eventually emerged as something else.


Presentations of lifetime achievement awards usually involve a broad overview of the recipient’s career with a few light wisecracks thrown in just to keep the mood jovial. It’s a roast, basically, just more P.C. In presenting Meryl Streep with the Cecil B. DeMille Award, however, Viola Davis decided to forgo such standard issue nonsense. She gave a performance as much as an introduction, like a mini-one woman show, honing in on a theme, utilizing pauses to let her varying points linger in the air, even playing different parts, including a brief turn as her own husband. More importantly, Davis played the parts of both herself and Streep, deftly alternating personas in voice, facial expressions and posture, in a conversation about Streep dispensing apple pie making advice, imagining Streep as something like a less sinister Miranda Priestly crossed with that moment in “Doubt” when Streep, while interrogating Philip Seymour Hoffman, goes “hmmmmmmmmmmm.”

But Davis gradually allowed it to emerge that this conversation was less about recipes than an opportunity for Streep to observe behavior, filing mental notes about that behavior, waiting, as Davis said, “to share what she has stolen on that sacred place, which is the screen.” And in drawing on other attitudes and experiences rather than merely her own to sculpt a character she is, essentially, empathizing with others and, by extension, allowing us to empathize with all those attitudes and experiences too.

Taking Davis’s baton, Streep did not so much run with it as settle into place and wield the baton like an actorly weapon. Streep had notes in her hand, which she read from, or appeared to, for a second, before ignoring them, like they were a prop to reel us in, to lower our guard so that when she went there all our mouths would be left that much more agape. She’s a performer, see.


“An actor’s only job,” she said, “is to enter the lives of people who are different from us, and let you feel what that feels like.” This tied, inadvertently or not, directly back to what Davis had cited as Streep’s supreme skill. But Streep wasn’t talking about herself so much as him. You know…him, our President Elect. Streep equated our President Elect’s run to the most respected position in our country to a performance, but suggested that it was the opposite of what great performers do, shunning the desire to even try and consider other attitudes and experiences and what they might mean. She accused Trump of turning his back on empathy.

Meryl Streep can sometimes feel like a deity, underscored incessantly, from someone even as incessantly disagreeable as Seth MacFarlane deferring to her reverence at the Oscars to The Onion article in the wake of Sunday night. It’s so easy to put movie stars on a pedestal, which is so many dislike movie stars, writing them off as cultural elites or coastal elites or liberal elites, or whatever the trendy elite is these days. They can emit that elitist air, admittedly, as they often do at awards shows, which might be why some people dislike bestowing gifts on one another galas so much. That’s what was so great about Streep’s speech. She did not get up there to pat her own back but to issue an even-keeled call to arms.

“Escape” gets cited in the popular discourse as such a vital reason for the movies, which was what “La La Land”, winner of so many Globes represents. But empathy is important too, creating work that is not important, per se, but an invitation to, as the esteemed Roger Ebert once wrote, walk a little bit in someone else's shoes. That, if you ask me, is this magic of the movies. Meryl Streep not only used her Sunday night platform to hold our President Elect accountable, she used it to cite “the responsibility of empathy”, directing it at all those performers in the room in rapt attention, holding them accountable to their art going forward too.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

La La Land

Early in Damien Chazelle’s retro musical opus “La La Land”, Mia (Emma Stone) declines an invitation to a Hollywood party, and can you blame her since those things are usually populated by pompous movie producers confusing bragging for conversation? But Mia’s three roommates will not abide. So they pester her by way of song and dance, as Chazelle’s camera nimbly darts to and fro amidst the passages of the ladies’ fairly spacious apartment, altering Mia’s attitude, conveyed in Stone’s smile morphing from “Oh, you guys” to “It is on” as they transition from indoors to outdoors. There the four ladies line up on the street, like it’s an asphalt stage, different colored dresses mixing impeccably with the magic hour twilight in the background, like all the world’s a color wheel and the sky is cotton candy, and march directly into your damn heart.


The entire sequence owes a debt to “West Side Story”, just as myriad sequences to come owe myriad debts to other musicals, which is why the reference point that kept popping into my head throughout “La La Land” wasn’t a song and dance extravaganza but Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho.” Chazelle’s film is not a shot for shot remake of anything, granted, even if there are plenty of shots to pick out from other films, but “La La Land’s” foremost intent is not to advance the cinematic conversation. This is, shall we say, Love Letter Cinema, a missive penned on celluloid by Chazelle to the forebears he clearly adores so much. Still, for all of Chazelle’s evident adoration, he seems to forget one crucial component – that is, creating bona fide characters.

Each of Chazelle’s previous films centered on jazz and so it is no surprise that one of his two principal characters, pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), is written as both a savant and savior of jazz. That he’s a prickly reactionary isn’t so odd when considering his intolerance for any progressions in the genre except that Chazelle, confusedly, seems to think this is charming, just as he seems to think the noisy imperiousness with which Sebastian lays on his car horn to occasionally announce his arrival is charming too. And because Chazelle seems to like Sebastian so much, he presents the character as is, with virtually no arc, aside from his burgeoning relationship with Mia.

Mia is a barista who dreams of being an actress and she might be a good one, but we never really know, considering her climactic one woman show happens entirely off screen and the rest of the time she is stuck in bad audition hell. Her aspirations do not warrant as much screen time as Sebastian’s. Stone, however, still wrings some livewire energy out of the role, like a scene where she ruffles Sebastian’s feathers during his gig with an 80s cover band by requesting his un-preferred Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran” and then erupts into a spastic dance to taunt. It’s her best dance in the movie, and the most unprofessional one, which probably says something.


It’s also indicative of their relationship. They are the Ginger and Fred, of course, beginning at odds only to fall in love, and yet their falling in love is the least convincing element in the movie, perhaps because their relationship is based less on romance than reinforcement. He pushes her to act, even though he’s never seen her act, and she pushes him to open his own jazz club, even though she explicates that she doesn’t like jazz. Indeed, a musical number at the Hollywood Planetarium finds them literally – kind of - departing the earth to float among the stars, a gorgeous evocation of each one trying to push the other higher.

Unfortunately, their lack of romantic heat means the conclusion fails to burn as brightly as might have, because it just doesn’t hurt as much as it could have. Then again, that might not be such a bad thing. “La La Land” knows the harsh truth about dreams, it just refuses to completely surrender to that truth, which is why it’s called “La La Land” in the first place, and why it concludes not with some montage of woe but a willed fantasy that flagrantly and delightfully quotes “An American in Paris” and “Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” With no characters to truly hang its hat on, this sequence is really just a delivery device for The Magic of Movies, and yet, in a way, it is still elementally magic unto itself. I kept thinking of the singing voices of Stone and Gosling, which are no grand shakes, and how they emblemized “La La Land’s” entire feel, like someone in a little club covering a few standards with a lot of love in their heart. Whatever fails to work, well, whatever, because I was still happy to go along for the ride.