' ' Cinema Romantico

Friday, April 19, 2019

Some Drivel On...Sunshine

As the solar eclipse of August 2017 approached, news outlets repeatedly warned not to look at the sun with the naked eye, except during the moment of actual total eclipse, lest you suffer significant eye damage. Inevitably, America’s President stepped onto the White House balcony in those landmark pre-total eclipse moments and looked directly at the sun. He’s not a bright fella, our Chief Executive. Still, I thought of him squinting into a solar eclipse as I toured the Palace of Versailles outside Paris a few months later where emblems of King Louis XIV’s self-imposed status as the Sun King abound. Nothing, of course, obviously, is more powerful in our solar system than the sun which no doubt makes kings – or wannabe kings vexed by pesky separation of powers – insecure. So, you take the sun’s name as your own or you look directly at the sun when you absolutely shouldn’t because the sun isn’t better than you. This differs, but only somewhat, from people like deceased legend Sir Isaac Newton who, at age 22, stared at a reflection of the sun and then 27 years later recounted the episode for John Locke. The results, as Newton explained them, may have been based on logic per what the brightest star in the universe does, but the language suggests something else. “I am apt to think that if I durst venture my eyes,” Newton wrote, “I could still make y phantasm return by the power of my fansy.” That’s a poetical explanation of what staring at the sun does to a man, causing someone like Sir Isaac Newton to talk in terms of phantasms rather than pragmatism. And that is the glorious grey area where Danny Boyle’s semi-forgotten personal masterpiece “Sunshine” (2007) manages to exist, honoring deep space’s conflicting ideas of light and darkness with a movie that drives reason and philosophy straight into each other.

The sun is dying, explains the film as it opens, leaving mankind in a lurch, causing a spaceship and crew (after the first spaceship and crew has gone missing) to set out for the sun to re-start it, “create a star within a star.” It’s a solid set-up, and while the principal objective of their mission and humanity itself is never overlooked despite the movie concentrating on several individuals, these characters’ respective crises and philosophical debates do not insultingly override their objective mission and humanity’s fate but intertwine. As the movie opens, Searle (Cliff Curtis), the ship’s psych officer is in the viewing deck, observing the sun through a modified prism that ensures, like, you know, his retinas don’t incinerate. Curtis’s air impressively evinces a regal deference to the solar deity, and when he asks the computer’s ship – a sunnier HAL – if he can see the sun at 4 percent brightness rather 2 percent, she explains that 4 percent would incinerate his retinas, epitomizing mankind’s propensity for tempting fate, which their ship name – Icarus II – also makes abundantly clear.

That ship name is evocative of how Boyle and his screenwriter Alex Garland build so many philosophical contradictions into the scaffolding of the screenplay, transforming abundant exposition into more meaningful meditations. When Cassie (Rose Byrne), the ship’s pilot, expresses fear at the looming mission to Capa (Cillian Murphy), the ship’s physicist, he explains how the payload works in a way almost befitting Newton’s musings about staring into the sun. “A big bang on a small scale,” he says. “A new star born out of a dying one. I think it’ll be beautiful. I’m not scared.” “I am,” she says.

That’s the question looming – not so much, will humanity survive, even if that question is never sidelined by narrative necessity, but what awaits each of us at the end, how will we get there, what it will be like? “What do you see?” Searle begs his ship’s Commander (Hiroyuki Sanada) as the latter races to repair the ship to salvage the mission as the ship’s rotation means the full blast of the sun is about to come into view and roast him. The Commander never says what he sees but he doesn’t have to, the film’s evocative, unforgettable music score mixing with the actor’s serene countenance suggest transcendence. How often do you see a Hollywood action sequence punctuated not with an explosion but enigmatic awe?

That this sequence happens at all ties back to the foremost plot complication – that is, in route to the sun, Icarus II picks up the signal of supposedly lost Icarus I, quietly camped out somewhere near Mercury. Though protocol dictates staying on mission since, hey, their mission involves saving Earth and everyone on it, they change course for the first Icarus anyway after a legitimate, logical debate about whether the benefit of possibly acquiring Icarus I’s payload in addition to their own outweighs the cost of deviating from their course. Mathematically speaking, Capa says, the answer is yes. But variables get them anyway, which makes their decision to fly toward Icarus I not narrative contrivance but a furthering of the film’s overriding philosophical debate.

It is also their undoing. The final act twist is that Icarus I’s commander, Pinbacker (Mark Strong), is still alive, having killed his crew himself, playing God after undergoing some sort of fundamentalist religious conversion from being in the sun too long, glimpsed in how he, the character, is barely glimpsed, his flesh having mostly melted away. It’s a haunted house, basically, as Boyle’s mostly clear editing suddenly gives way to quick-cut pyrotechnics. If my first time around I struggled with this passage, I ruminated on it for years and came around, particularly on my most recent viewing, where the adrenalized camera and narrative accentuate how the logic and reason of that do-we-rendezvous-with-Icarus-I discussion collapses into calamitous madness. Even as it does, though, Capa stays moving on a parallel track, rationally trying to complete the mission, fending off this encroaching mania yet ultimately surrendering to it. He sees the light.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

No, Honestly, I'm Really Asking, Where Did You Go, Joe Black?

If Film Twitter is frequently a black hole less comparable to Katie Bouman’s photograph and more in the vein of “Event Horizon”, it occasionally, unexpectedly opens up into a sun-dappled solarium, like it did last week, late Thursday, when I logged in and noticed that “Meet Joe Black” (1998), Martin Brest’s (almost) last stand, was improbably trending. The source of its social media resurrection, near as I could tell, was Rosie O’Shea (@ladyastronauty) Tweeting a one-minute and nineteen second clip of the film’s inciting incident in which Brad Pitt’s nameless but impeccably coiffed young man and Claire Forlani’s medical resident Susan Parrish, post-coffee shop Meet Cute, walk in opposite directions, each one pausing at the exact wrong moment to look back, suggesting a “Serendipity” precursor, where these two destined souls spend the entire movie apart trying to re-engineer their original soul connection. Alas, in a jarring moment tonally apart from the moment’s wistfulness, Pitt’s nameless but impeccably coiffed young man gets blindsided by a car, thrown into the air and then hit by another car coming the other way. “This is,” Tweeted O’Shea, “the most bonkers one minute of a movie I have ever seen.” Others seemed to agree, as a whole legion of Twitter whippersnappers apparently discovered the generally forgotten “Meet Joe Black” for the first time.

I used to watch this scene through the projection booth porthole of the multiplex where I started working in the fall of 1998 just to revel in the Woah There! reactions of movie-goers. And if just a couple weeks ago I was lamenting the myriad 1999 movies I watched by myself after building them reel by reel, none of those experiences all put together equaled “Meet Joe Black.” I still remember the deliveryman dropping off the reel canisters and just staring at them in disbelief, thinking “Can this be right? Can there be this many reels? Can it really be this long?” Yes. Yes, it could, and I know because I watched “Meet Joe Black”, all three hours of it, by myself in an empty auditorium. That 180 minute run time might have seemed suspect before I sat down to watch it, but it seemed insane after I finally finished, leaving a movie theater in the small hours.

“Meet Joe Black’s” premise, in which Bill Parrish (Anthony Hopkins), an aging billionaire, becomes the earthly guide for Death itself, taking the form of Pitt’s nameless but impeccably coiffed young man, before being escorted by Death off to The Great Beyond, is cribbed from “Death Takes a Holiday” (1934) which ran a scant 79 minutes. Though there are comic moments, “Meet Joe Black” is not, say, “Defending Your Life.” No, Brest strains for the operatic, only to frequently devolve into soap operatic instead, sentimental and syrupy, pouring over the romance between Susan, Bill’s daughter, and Death, all while negotiating Bill’s co-lead story and a corporate espionage subplot involving Susan’s villainous fiancĂ© (Jake Weber). And while each piece falls neatly into place, Brest is not concerned with storytelling efficiency, preferring to linger, perhaps overmuch, though that is not the same thing as being superfluous.

Indeed, a shorter film might not have carved out time for such sterling supporting performances by Marcia Gay Harden, playing Danni Minogue to Susan’s Kylie with a rueful, graceful understatement, and Jeffrey Tambor as her spouse, Bill’s son in law, who gives the otherwise rote corporate espionage subplot some emotional oomph simply for the non-verbal way he takes the castigation of his manhood by Weber’s character, transforming audible heavy breathing becoming a miraculous sonic demonstration of tragic humility. Hopkins, meanwhile, has his character meet Death with a rich man’s arrogance suggesting he can stop what’s coming even as he simultaneously is humbled by the fact that he cannot, brilliantly harnessing the emotion of the weight of a whole life lived that is now slipping right through his fingers. And the operatic straining is what turns the Death/Susan romance into something less than clockwork, letting Forlani, whose eyes are a goddam supernova, hunger for Pitt the way thousands of millions of of women of the same era did. Brest even gives Pitt the, uh, climactic close-up in their sex scene, a $90 million Universal production released into the holiday marketplace as voyeurism.

Pitt simply could have slid by on his innate charm – in fact, most actors would have, and would have been coached to. But Pitt, bless his heart, was playing to the idea of being an inhuman life form having taken one as a vessel, like he’s figuring out his body, blank-faced because what’s emotion? It doesn’t always work, and it can be weird, comically so, like the GIF of Brad Pitt as Death eating peanut butter which made the rounds during last Thursday’s Twitter scroll down memory lane. But in seeing that peanut butter GIF over and over, I found the weirdness not nostalgic but refreshing, as if it was brand new.

It was ironic that the new “Star Wars” trailer was set for release the next day. Here we are, over twenty years later, and still returning to that well, dredging up every last bit. I’ve written about it before but what causes people to freak out over these trailers isn’t anything new but everything they know. I also gasped at the sight of Lando, and then I caught myself. It’s emblematic of Hollywood’s epidemic of spoon-feeding us the same ol’, same ol’, over and over, reboots, remakes, and sequels, oh my, easter eggs masquerading as protein. That’s the extent of filmmaking creativity these days, moguls making movies based on marketing plans rather than letting auteurists follow their own creative flow. And as everyone heckled “Meet Joe Black”, I found myself grieving for it. Though based on another movie, it was based only loosely, copping the premise but then roaming wherever it damn pleased, beholden to none but its own unique spirit. Would that it were more movie these days were bold enough to let themselves be called bonkers.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019


Jesse: “I heard this story once, about when the Germans were occupying Paris and they had to retreat back, they wired Notre-Dame to blow. But they had to leave one guy in charge of hitting the switch. And the guy, the soldier, couldn’t do it. You know, he just sat there, knocked out by how beautiful the place was. And then, when the allied troops came in, they found all the explosives just lying there, and the switch unturned.”
Celine: “Is that true?”
Jesse: “I don’t know. I always liked that story, though.”

I thought of that exchange from “Before Sunset” in the wake of Notre-Dame Cathedral burning yesterday. And I thought of that exchange not just because I bring most everything down to movies, though I mostly do, but because it so succinctly summarizes Our Lady of Paris’s status as a survivor. Goddamit, that immaculate French Gothic structure survived the Nazi occupation; it survived the French Revolution too, and years of neglect. It seems to have survived yesterday’s terrible, tragic blaze too.

I did not think of that exchange a couple autumns ago when I visited Paris in the company of My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife and saw Notre-Dame up close (and from afar) with my own eyes. Because I don’t think you can really think about much of anything while looking at Notre-Dame. Its beauty overwhelms you. The Statue of Liberty did that too when I finally stood in its imposing shadow, though that sensation was different, culled from how Lady Liberty signified everyone who had come through this place.

Notre-Dame contains history too, sure, centuries of it, and that is significant and worthy of appreciation, just as it serving its role as a but a fully functional Catholic place of worship is not something I intend to downplay. But whatever your thoughts on practitioners of organized religion, “those bastards,” to paraphrase Ron Swanson, “knew how to build an edifice”, and in that building is where Notre-Dame’s greatest meaning emerges, a monument to something bigger and truer than mere architectural functionality or a product to be bought and sold; it’s an objective work of art. Art is a universal language. Jejune, perhaps, but accurate, at least when I stood inside and marveled at so many cultures and creeds marveling at the Rose Window, its stained glass beyond the scope of even the most futuristic smartphone filter, some genuine for your eyes only shit in this Instagram age, like Captain Miller and his wife and the rose bushes.

If it’s bad now, it’s always been just as bad before, and Notre-Dame, in its own way, is living proof. Still, I kept thinking this loss occupied some profound space beyond mere heartbreak and obligatory words of mankind’s propensity to rebuild what’s lost in the face of where this whole increasingly ghastly earthly show seems to be headed. When I saw that spire topple through the collapsing roof, it was as if some terrible rift had suddenly been slashed through the universe, threatening to take everything beautiful with it, a cosmic signifier of what’s been lost and stands to be lost still. And though one thing does not necessarily have to do with another, and though the onlookers singing Ave Maria in unison made my heart found full, the elemental indifference of those flames seemed to spiritually stand in for the indifference of so many to history and art, to all the beauty in this world that should be preserved and not run roughshod over, and I found myself hoping our era isn’t the one that finally hits the switch.

Monday, April 15, 2019

The Public

“The Public”, which refers to the Cincinnati Public Library, does not merely view libraries as collections of books and information but something more akin to an informal social hub, a gathering place for, ahem, the public where everyone, regardless of class and race, has access to knowledge, “the last true bastion of democracy” as one character puts it, which you gives a sense of the film’s from-the-ramparts dialogue. Indeed, “The Public’s” belief in libraries is earnest, opening with a 1950s PSA video on their behalf, closing with assorted images of the building at rest, though the actual library sciences are conspicuously absent, forgoing any sequences of actual collection or preservation, never mind simple organization. Then again, “The Public” does not yearn to be Frederick Wiseman’s “Ex Libris” (2017). No, this is a conventional drama, albeit one with a blatant advocacy bent, weaving several social themes through its booklined setting. But if writer/director Emilio Estevez has passion for these themes, his filmmaking is oddly dispassionate, laid bare in a conspicuous lack of world-building.

The drama’s genesis is a supposedly life-threatening cold front that sends temperatures plunging and leaves the homeless population, with not enough city shelters to go around, shivering on sidewalks. I say supposedly, however, because even if this weather, as we are told, can kill people, characters still traipse around outdoors without scarves, while a scene in which villainous district attorney cum mayoral candidate Josh Davis (Christian Slater) made to lay down a sidewalk at a pivotal moment with no coat, hat or gloves finds him looking hardly the worse for wear, giving “The Public” less the feel of an arctic adventure displaced to Cincinnati than a Hallmark Christmas Movie where the characters are barely bundled because they are actually filming in July. This overriding lack of authenticity renders Estevez’s handheld, faux-documentarian aesthetic as artificial rather than artful.

Nevertheless, it’s cold outside! And so, the homeless, who frequent the library most days anyway until the building closes, and most of whom librarian Stuart Goodson (Estevez) knows by first name, lock themselves in, a demonstration of which Goodson willingly takes part and then takes charge. This leads to a standoff between activists and the authorities, the latter represented by Davis and crisis negotiator Bill Ramstead (Alec Baldwin), while a ratings-obsessed news reporter (Gabrielle Union) becomes something of an intermediary. It’s no secret whose side Estevez the director is on, painting the press and the police as instigators while the eventual SWAT team is just persons as props, faceless instruments of bureaucratic warfare.

The homeless, meanwhile, though nominally the whole point, are each generally limited to one dimension, like Big George. Though Che “Rhymefest” Smith imbues the role with a quiet humanity, the character’s mental illness, a serious issue you’d suspect would be paramount to such a socially conscious movie, is limited to his belief the government has implanted lasers in his eyes, which is not explored but mere set-up for a callback at an important moment. Estevez has said he sought to “celebrate the unsung”, a noble quest, which makes one wonder why he puts his character front and center most of the movie, underscored in the screenplay’s odd obsession with the vocative case, with nearly every other sentence beginning or ending with “Mr. Goodson” – things in the manner of, “What do you think, Mr. Goodson?” or “Goodson, what are you doing?” We are a long, long way from “Your Friends & Neighbors” never-actually-uttered Mary, Barry, Terri, Cheri, Cary, and Jerry.

The character name and incessant recitation of it is emblematic of a messiah complex, though Estevez’s performance is less grand than that might suggest, much more blandly mellow. And that mellowness courses through the whole film. No matter how many times Ramstead asks Goodson how this is all going to end, the stakes never feel life and death, epitomized in scattered shots of the often oddly unbothered homeless protestors sitting around with their noses in books resembles a church lock-in more than any kind of citizen uprising. At least, though, they are seen reading. Goodson, despite preaching the gospel of reading throughout, never is, aside from one scene where he recites from “The Grapes of Wrath” by phone to the reporter. And if the scene is lofty, never mind corny, it’s also one of the rare occasions when “The Public” feels infused with the fury ostensibly fueling this protest, and ostensibly fueling the movie too.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

When One of Your Favorite Writers Whines About Plot Holes

“The Blair Witch Project”, a fictional found footage horror movie in which three teenagers disappear in the Maryland woods when attempting to film a documentary about the supposed eponymous specter, is 20 years old, meaning it has been dutifully covered in the ongoing cavalcade of 1999 Film retrospectives, usually in conjunction with its influence and marketing. (This blog wrote about it 3 years ago.How The Blair Witch Project changed horror for ever, proclaimed The Guardian. How a Tiny Indie Film Became a Horror Sensation—and Invented Modern Movie Marketing, declared The Ringer. If these arguments are valid, they nevertheless tend to distill “The Blair Witch Project” down to a product rather than a film, disregarding, unintentionally or otherwise, its harrowing, minimalist aesthetic. And if a film is seen first and foremost as a product then arguments for or against are frequently lobbed through that commodified context.

Sigh. This blog loves Charlie Pierce. We are proud, annual fee paying subscribers to Mr. Pierce’s Esquire Politics blog. We tried to subscribe quick enough to get a free Esquire Politics tote bag but, alas, missed the cut. We would, however, have proudly carried that tote bag to the grocery store. Nevertheless, writing off “The Blair Witch Project” as a “scam” makes the movie sound like a piece of manufacturing rather than a work of art for the film de cinema. Lamenting, meanwhile, that the characters do not adhere to the tried & true boy scout tactic of following the river out of the woods is cut from the Reddit school of film analysis, which isn’t really analysis at all, just picking out plot holes, not engaging with the movie but exerting a sense of superiority, the ethos of the Neil DeGrasse Tyson Film Critic Academy.

This is all the more sorrowful because Mr. Pierce is more than capable of acute movie insight. He opened a 2012 piece for Grantland (rip) about Notre Dame football by citing a passage of the 1940 film “Knute Rockne, All American” in which the youthful version of the future Fighting Irish gridiron coach admonishes his father for speaking Norwegian since they were now full-fledged Americans. “Notre Dame,” wrote Pierce, “stood for the education they’d made central to their purchase on a place in their new country.” If the invaluable sports historian Murray Sperber has written about “Knute Rockne, All American” shaping how we view college athletics, akin to How a Tiny Indie Film Became a Horror Sensation—and Invented Modern Movie Marketing, Pierce read the movie’s inherent drama as a reflection of Irish immigrant values.  It’s an astute analysis of the actual film framed through a socio-political context, with which this blog, it probably goes without saying, has no issue.

Still, Pierce’s cogent argument is informed by his satisfaction with seeing the immigrant experience properly portrayed, suggesting a summation of a reality he knows well. And while I might be extrapolating, perhaps that lack of reality is what informs his opinion that the original “Blair Witch” was a scam. After all, Pierce is a former forest ranger. But merely reading the characters’ failure to follow the river out as a pesky plot hole fails to take the moment in the film’s full context. If these characters are pointedly portrayed as dismissive of the Blair Witch legend, indifferent to the area’s history and ignorant of their environs then all these elements rise up to disorient and eventually claim them; this cuts deeper than geography; this is a dark night of the American soul.

It’s Pierce who summarized modern college basketball best when he wrote: “There are, of course, no poets left in basketball. There are only salesmen, some better and more entertaining than others.” That still cuts straight to my heart. And I fear when it comes to “The Blair Witch Project”, like so many focused on its marketing rather than its aesthetics, that Mr. Pierce is only choosing to see the sale, not the poetry.