' Cinema Romantico

Thursday, April 27, 2017

keira knightley gazes into the distance

Anyone wondering whether or not Keira Knightley would appear in the no doubt behemothic latest installment of the behemothic "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, the latest trailer put to rest all rumors by revealing her. Granted, she's barely in it, perched below some mountainous terrain looming behind her, gazing at something we cannot see off in the distance. And naturally it prompts the question...WHAT IS SHE LOOKING AT? I want to know what she's looking at so much that I'm contemplating going to see this movie which I would have heretofore thought unthinkable.

The principles of Bruckeimer-y detection tell me what she is gazing at is a special effect and not really there, but hey, who's to say? Maybe it's just Orlando Bloom riding a horse over the horizon. There are SO MANY REASONS movie characters gaze into the distance.

Sometimes you gaze into the distance out of hope...

Sometimes you gaze into the distance out of fear...

Sometimes you gaze into the distance out of regret...

Sometimes you gaze into the distance on account of some existential urge...

Sometimes you gaze into the distance because it's the only thing you really want to see...

Sometimes you gaze into the distance because it's a plaintive moment dammit...

Sometimes you gaze into the distance because it makes for a splendid photo op...

Sometimes you gaze into the distance because it's a Malick movie and that's what you do...

And sometimes...well, sometimes you gaze into the distance because what you see is for your eyes only...

Because in the end, as I return to this still, I realize that I don't need to see "Pirates of the Caribbean" after all. Because whatever Keira is gazing at she is gazing at with an understanding of the cosmos that idiots like me could not hope to appreciate even if I saw it through a particularly pristine set of coin-operated binoculars.

Phew. There's $15 I don't have to spend.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

30 for 30: One and Not Done

Verily in the beginning collegiate sports were contradictory. In the first college football game ever contested on November 6, 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton the former earned victory with the aid of three players who were failing algebra, instantaneously rendering the relationship between students and athletics as volatile, a volatility that has never been quelled, with big time college sports always held up more as commercialized entertainment than an extension of a university’s academic intent, a rift that has only deepened over time, with enormous football and basketball stadiums towering over quaint academic halls and the recent NCAA Basketball Champion earning its crown while still mired in an academic imbroglio. We like to fashion sports into black/white narratives but more often they exist in murky moral middle grounds, and no one at present walks that middle ground with as much I-Don’t-Care-What-You-Think zeal as college basketball raconteur John Calipari, current head coach of Kentucky, former head coach of Massachusetts and Memphis.

Jonathan Hock’s documentary “One and Not Done”, the latest in ESPN’s never-ending 30 for 30 series, ably captures that middle ground, opening by establishing Calipari as the son of immigrants, tying the coach’s go-getter nature to his parents, and evoking its subject’s inherent contradiction in an early line in which Calipari says his family was “never embarrassed about where we came from because it was all about where you were going”, the latter seeming to be in direct opposition to the former. Hock just lets that lie there, but you sense in this line a mantra for Calipari as a coach, particularly as his star has risen and, on account of an NBA rule stipulating that prospective players can only declare for the league’s draft after one year in college or upon turning 19, he has turned his program into an NBA way station, bringing in many of the country’s top basketball recruits for a single season to win big and then send them to the pros to get paid. It’s all about where his kids are going.

That willingness to gleefully embrace a rule so frowned up on by so many of his peers sets Calipari apart even if, like any other coach, he yearns to win, a familiar sensation seen vividly during in-game moments where Hock has mic’d up Calipari to provide us a wonderful, unvarnished look at a coach’s sideline behavior, which I rather enjoyed because while many coaches like to play up their dignified air, these mic’d up scenes deliberately demonstrate no dignity whatsoever. He screams at referees and bellows at his own players, though in other moments we see the love he has for his players and the love they have for him, perhaps best epitomized in how Calipari brings a plethora of former players on stage with him for his Basketball Hall of Fame introduction ceremony.

If many coaches, like a certain faux General, often make it all about themselves, or while some, like Jim Calhoun, who is interviewed in “One and Not Done”, talk about the sanctity of “the game”, the Hall of Fame ceremony illustrates that Calipari, more than most, brings “the game” back to the reason it exists in the first place – the kids. The game is theirs. At the same time, Calipari is nothing if not a high-powered salesman, a fact repeated numerous times, often with variations of the old he could sell ice to eskimos line, and the documentary gives the distinct impression that Calipari is pitching us, the audience, trying to sell us on a more saintly vision of him.

Yet even if it skews sympathetic toward its subject, “One and Not Done” does not does not glide by the fact that both the Massachusetts and Memphis basketball programs were hit by NCAA sanctions retroactively under Calipari’s watch. Calipari, in fact does his best in the film, as he did in real life, to sort of deflect wrongdoing onto the kids, not so subtly calling into question his stance about it being all about the kids, also evoked in Calipari’s comments that his star-stacked Kentucky teams will only win championships when the kids decide they want to win championships badly enough, a pretty clever way of deflecting blame for his own losses. Even so, if any moment in Hock’s documentary most hit me, it was the revelation that Massachusetts star Marcus Camby, who accepted money and gifts from people outside the program, an NCAA no-no, which led to said sanctions, repaid Massachusetts what he took by donating money to the school. It left me thinking that even if Calipari is not necessarily the selfless mentor he might claim, he nonetheless seemed to have taught Camby right, a contradiction to the end.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Fate of the Furious

Boy those crazy kids from “The Fast and the Furious” have come a long way in sixteen years. Where once they were mere thrill-seeking street-racers who only wanted to drive faster than someone else a quarter mile at a time and then unwind with a cold Corona, they have now apparently morphed into thrill-seeking James Bonds juniors, racing not just in the streets and not just for thrills but across icy tundras with nuclear submarines in hot pursuit to prevent WWIII. And it’s entirely possible you might read all that and say: Duh. This is common knowledge. Where have you been? Did you not see the six sequels to “The Fast and the Furious”? My answer: No. No, I did not see the six sequels to “The Fast and the Furious”. And so if you are hoping for a review in which the franchise's considerable history is used to place “The Fate of the Furious”, entry #8 in the apparently indestructible franchise, into complete context, well, by all means, and no hard feelings, look elsewhere. But if you are curious about what a “Fast and the Furious” neophyte might have to say about the new box office thresher, feel free to keep reading.

Please do not assume, however, this review will merely be head-scratching and rhetorical question-asking, like wondering why those characters I did not know and cannot name who appeared for, like, two seconds earned a round of applause from the audience. That was a tidbit for the real fans, obviously, good for them, and for fundamental newbies such as myself we thankfully don’t need much history to understand what’s happening or, more crucially, to glean the precise standing of various character relationships. “Fate of the Furious” principal Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) walks practically everywhere in the movie’s Havana opening with his arm around Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), visual shorthand for their romantic relationship. Roman (Tyreese Gibson) and Tej (Ludacris) crack jokes because they are comic relief. Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard (Jason Statham) talk trash so they are adversarial, which accounts for the movie’s single biggest letdown. This duo spend the film’s first half like two boxers in the run-up up to a showdown, issuing so many threats that it can only mean a third act fight waits. Alas, the third act fight never materializes because the movie needs to briefly move one of them aside on account of an obvious He’s Dead feint and because the movie decides they need to make up and be friends. Boo! Hiss!

Then again, their eventual making up correlates directly to the movie’s overriding theme, one explicated several times just to ensure, I guess, that anyone like me with no real relationship to the franchise doesn’t miss it – namely, Family First. We see this in the movie’s standalone opening stanza, a nod, it seems, to the series’ roots, in which Dom settles a dispute involving his cousin by challenging Raldo (Celestino Cornielle) to a street race. The whole sequence speaks to the movie’s light tone, where one second Raldo is literally trying to kill Dom and the next second Raldo is all like “You’ve got my respect, you wacky guy”, and the innumerable extras function less as potential collateral damage than street race club goers just waiting for the checkered flag.

That tone goes hand-in-hand with the movie’s mononymous villain Cipher (Charlize Theron), cyber-terrorist extraordinaire, wherein her diabolical plan to acquire some nukes for all the usual reasons comes across as far less consequential than her blackmailing Dom into helping her acquire those nukes so that she can pit him against his brotherly and sisterly racers-in-arms. And this means that Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), a wonderful character, a vaguely defined government operative who comes and goes at his leisure and who I kept imagining in an alternate “Four Rooms”-ish film waltzing from spy movie to spy movie with various instructions for various action heroes, will enlist Dom’s own cohorts to go after Dom, family against family.

Trouble is, because we know from the get-go that Dom has not really gone to the dark side of the fast & furious force, all the inherent suspense of this twist is sucked dry. This leaves the myriad set pieces to do the heavy lifting. They mostly do, equally comic and ornate, stretching from a zombie submarine to a car chase in which one of the cars isn’t a car but a heat-seeking missile, which I imagine will be a NASCAR event by 2020, even if, at certain points, this insistence on bigger and louder sometimes makes it seem like director F. Gary Gray and writer Chris Morgan inadvertently crafted a sequel to “xXx” rather than “The Fast and the Furious.”

If too often Diesel is forced to go through these gone-rogue motions with a gruff joylessness that mirrors the fauxness of his going rogue, where the thing that winds up driving him forward, not to be revealed, plays less like a true augmenting of the familial stakes than a we-need-something-here soap opera twist (notice how a potential love triangle lets Dom off the hook because the movie makes the decision for him, a cheat that really grinds my gears), there are nevertheless still moments when his real emotions buried deep beneath so much Hollywood pomp and circumstance emerge. You can’t completely tamp down Vin Diesel, or Michelle Rodriguez, and when they crackle together, like post-going rogue, when they find themselves in a staredown by way of a Mexican Standoff, franchise backstory is rendered as mute as all the pyrotechnics, speaking a universal cinematic language.

Cars are cute, but nothing on the silver screen stokes the engines like human faces.

Monday, April 24, 2017


If nothing else, “Colossal” is something else, a movie apart from any other you are likely to see this year. That is not to suggest “Colossal” is entirely original or radical since it very much traffics in familiar genres and tropes, marrying a returning-to-your-hometown-with-your-tail-between-your-legs movie to a Godzilla vs. Whoever movie. “Colossal” is something like if Reese Witherspoon of “Sweet Home Alabama” was forced to reckon with the error of her ways by being pitted in an intimate yet enormous battle against a Kaiju. It’s as if writer/director Nacho Vilagondo took complaints directed at Gareth Edwards crack at “Godzilla” of monsters overshadowing humans and decided to turn them around by making the humans the monsters, “Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”, maybe, just more literal.

The movie opens with Gloria (Anne Hathaway) returning home after an all-night bender, which, we infer from the reaction of her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens), is not the first time this has happened. On his way out the door, Tim gives Gloria the afternoon to pack her things and go. She will, but first, as she sits on the sofa, gob-smacked about her sudden change in fortune, a few of her friends barrel into the apartment, kicking off some sort of mid-morning party, taking the scene out on a comic note rather than a sorrowful one, indicative of writer/director Nacho Vigalando’s preferred narrative maneuver of the Story Reversal. He loves the Story Reversal. The ensuing film, for whatever qualms may emerge, and there are a few, remains fully engaging by virtue of unremitting changes of direction.

Gloria’s move is to go home, moving onto an air mattress on the floor of her empty childhood home, and running into old friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) who now owns a small townie bar and gives Gloria a job. Their relationship emits the air of the Road Not Taken, one which will be explored after hours in back of the bar over innumerable longneck bottles of beer. Their jokey, feeling-each-other-out behavior suggests a familiar rom com template. But Vigalondo is quick to turn that template against itself. These drunken powwows gradually grow darker and meaner as all those beers consumed, which usually just provide something for actors to do onscreen, become integral, a genuine rendering of the issues alcohol abuse can cause.

Granted, even if it seriously considers alcoholism, the reasons for Gloria’s dependency remain somewhat nebulous, emblemized in that empty home which functions as a blank spot of her past. She has a past with Oscar too, though it is evoked only in a few brief flashes, left to be cultivated more in their behavior which begins as flirtatious before metamorphosing into something much more ominous, grievances aired and then acted upon. As an actor, Sudeikis has generally just skidded by on his deadpan one-liners, but here he gradually re-purposes that deadpan for something more insidious as his character’s jealousy rises so that, by the end, and in what specific ways I will not reveal, Oscar becomes truly frightening. Hathaway, meanwhile, seems to be informing her role with notes of her real life personality, or at least the public’s interpretation of her real life personality, as she wields a charm that feels as genuine as it is exploitative, and which eventually collapses into anguish before she authors a redemption that is not pat since she refuses to sacrifice any manic edge.

Their relationship becomes central to what initially seems like an oddly peripheral story in which a giant monster is on the loose in Seoul, eventually squaring off against a robot adversary, primarily shown through television news reports that people gather at Oscar’s bar to watch with bated breath. How this connects to Gloria and Oscar is best left unsaid, though there are assuredly some gaps in logic relating to its precise explanation while the movie also has no interest in seeing any of this from the Seoul’s perspective, reducing its people to mere narrative collateral damage. These are not idle complaints. Then again, there is a selfishness inherent in Gloria and Oscar that underscores the movie’s limited viewpoint, a selfishness that Gloria eventually finds the wherewithal to deal with and that Oscar lets percolate until it erupts.

The precise specifics of the eruption and their resolution shall remain unmentioned, and though their effect might have been even more sensational with additional backstory, perhaps bringing the idea of inherent rage within all of us truly home, there is nonetheless something intensely visceral about the way it plays out. The conclusion is sort of a reimagining of “King Kong” with Ann Darrow in the position of the titular ape and the titular ape in the position of Ann Darrow. And while that might make no sense with the full context, all I can tell you is the weirdly lyrical beauty it conjures and how in those moments all the aforementioned flaws dissolved into dust.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Friday's Old Fashioned: Secret Honor (1984)

The tagline for Robert Altman’s “Secret Honor” advises that “Anyone Can Be President.” The anyone in this case is Richard M. Nixon (Philip Baker Hall), who, judging from this one man film, based on a one man play, suggests that not only can a common crook be President but so can a vain, venomous, terrifying drunkard. Indeed, Altman locks us in a room with the 37th President, played by Philip Baker Hall less an a Dan Hedaya-ish impersonation than an inhabitation of a ferociously tormented soul, and then will not let us out, as if imagining the ex-President’s last days in his own self-imposed bunker, where the camerawork, even from the beginning where it wanders the fairly elaborate study rather than pulling back, refuses to give us a full sense of the room’s scope, or even if it’s night or day, though it certainly feels like night, at least for Nixon given the first shot of a grandfather clock as the bell tolls for our lone character about to go mad.

This Nixon, though he is explicitly advised as being a fictional version of a real person in an opening title card, sure seems like the guy we’ve heard about as he sits down at his desk in his wood paneled office with portraits of Presidents surrounding him and fiddles with a tape recorder that he initially struggles to make work, a tape recorder through which he apparently plans to try out some sort of impassioned plea for his right to be pardoned in the aftermath of his resignation. Throughout he addresses the “judge”, seemingly working as his own defense, and whether this is a trial run, some sort of tape he plans to send to who knows who, or something else, it doesn’t really matter. It might be a suicide note. After all, one shot ominously lingers on a revolver and, you know, Chekov’s Gun and all that, though never presume someone like Altman will adhere to those sorts of rigid rules.

Whoever he think he is speaking to, Nixon’s real nemesis here seems to be the Record and setting it straight, leaving him determined to get a few things off his chest. Or perhaps I should say, to get everything off his chest. The near 90 minute oration that follows veers wildly from the political to the personal and back again, a virtual life history in which Nixon recounts a childhood in which he seemed to be squarely under the thumb of his mother, who he loves and cannot stand, and which ties back to an ordinary upbringing which he seems convinced was the true genesis of his undoing, marking him an anti-elite to Kennedy and Eisenhower and all the rest, even the Founding Fathers, snotty English shits, and reproaching the electorate that kept putting him in office and the shadowy deep state to which he had no choice but to acquiesce even as they sought at every turn to undermine him. If he occasionally, briefly, gets introspective and flirts with pointing the thumb, he quickly reverts and wags his finger, screaming vitriol so that by movie’s end his forehead, face and probably bathrobe are adorned in sweat.

The performance by Hall achieves a unique sort of dichotomy. On one hand, for a part that Hall also played theatrically, suggesting an extremely lived in role, where the rantings and ravings and accompanying physical motions might play rehearsed, everything still comes across spontaneous. Hall evinces a kind of rageful absent-mindedness, where one memory suddenly triggers another, and where every time he comes into physical contact with something, whether a piano or a book, he momentarily snaps out of his furious paranoid delusions for a momentary peace before inevitably thinking of something else and going right back down the rabbit hole. At the same time, that absent-mindedness also elicits the sensation of familiarity, like a senile old man rehashing old arguments, and you can imagine that is why he has placed all these Presidential paintings in his home study, to continue these same conversations with silent portraits that he had from January 20, 1969 – August 9, 1974.

Even if some the conspiracy theories peddled by this Nixon come across pretty darn deranged there nevertheless emerges the sensation of myriad forces beyond a President’s control, as well as the inherent exhausting impossibilities of the executive position itself, destined to run you ragged if your mental fortitude is not fine-tuned. If some Presidents are perhaps more equipped to handle the untoward places the office takes you, others, as “Secret Honor” scarily uggests, are decidedly not.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

What Is Charlize Listening To?

There is a moment in "The Fate of the Furious" when Charlize Theron's character, the mononymous Cipher, chief villain, is chilling at a conference table aboard her luxury jet, holding an iPhone, I think, with one earbud in. It is a shot I have tried desperately to source but cannot. Still, the obvious question, and perhaps the preeminent cinematic question thus far of 2017, remains: What music is she listening to?

Astute viewers will note she is glimpsed wearing a Metallica tee shirt which would naturally suggest that she has cued up the legendary metal band, probably, given the setting and situation, this song...

But that seems too predictable. Why does she have to be listening to Metallica just because she's wearing a Metallica tee shirt? And besides, would this song really be her World Domination Anthem? So, maybe it's Lita Ford?

But then, even if the above song is her World Domination Anthem, consider the after hours situation in which she is listening to music. Is she really sitting there listening to Lita Ford? Even megalomaniacal villains gotta unwind, you know? So, maybe she's listening to this...

But maybe that's just a little too mournful to unwind to. So maybe she's unwinding to this...

Then again, what if Charlize doesn't unwind so much as escape. And if you are escaping you probably want to get away from the ambient for the more coolly energetic. So what if she's listening to this...

Damn man, you could almost talk me into it. You really could. But you can't. You know why? Because she's listening to Sade. She is absolutely listening to Sade.

Mystery solved.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

If I'm a Movie Driver, Who Am I?

I see the point, obviously, that Mr. Zoller Seitz is making. And yet, for this blog, it is nevertheless not quite right. Steve McQueen is, well, Steve McQueen and all that. I wish I was Steve McQueen zipping around in that “Thomas Crown” Ferrari but that’s still too fantastical for me. When I climb behind the wheel of a car I do not imagine myself as Steve McQueen because I cannot imagine myself as Steve McQueen because even my admittedly far-out imagination has its limits. No, when I get behind the wheel of a car, I picture myself as Skipp Sudduth in “Ronin.”

That might seem absurd too. If I’m going to picture myself as a driver in “Ronin” should it not be Robert DeNiro, considering he is at the wheel of the most daring and expansive of the film’s myriad car chases, going against traffic, briefly, and managing some sort of derring-do with the aid of the handbrake that is beyond my elementary mechanical expertise to properly explain. But as much as I love DeNiro in “Ronin”, Sudduth’s wonderfully ordinarily named Larry is my preferred automobile pilot. Like, you know how Ryan Gosling in “Drive” said “I drive”? That’s Larry except that Larry doesn’t even need to say “I drive.” He just...drives. He’s there because he drives. Everyone knows this. Plus, in a crew that includes DeNiro, Jean Reno and Natascha McElhone, Skipp Sudduth does not look like nor sound like be belongs. That is totally un-McQueen-ish; that is me.

But then, Skipp Sudduth in “Ronin” is my McQueen for a reason – I could never drive like that. “Something that can shovel a bit,” Sudduth’s character says of the car he needs. That is not what I say to the car salesman when I’m trying to buy a car. So, who am I really behind the wheel of a car? Me, a person who, in the unlikely event of a car chase, would wind up like Ricky Bobby post-comeback, piddling down the track at 26 mph...

Post comeback Ricky, in fact, is an intriguing choice. But even post-comeback Ricky Bobby is still Ricky Bobby, simply buying time until he becomes the requisite phoenix rising from the racetrack ashes. And so I feel uncomfortable going that route, just as I feel uncomfortable pegging myself as, say, Stephanie from “The Naked Gun”, the hapless driving school student who turns the Women Are Terrible Drivers cliche on its head when she unleashes her inner-Popeye Doyle. I could never unleash my inner-Popeye Doyle because I don’t have an inner-Popeye Doyle.

And that’s why maybe as a driver I’m most like Del Griffith in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” for whom driving is less the point than rocking out to “Mess Around” by Ray Charles while driving. I am, after all, not much of a driver, kind of like Del, who ends up going the wrong way in the worst situation possible, but I am really, really good at playing car dashboard piano.

The thing is, however, I don’t even own a car. I haven’t owned a car going on six years now. And I love it, I absolutely adore not owning a car. Becoming car-less was one of the best decisions I ever made even if it also means that the few times I do drive, usually in an unfamiliar rental car, I discover I am a more fearful and worse driver than ever. Who in their right mind would want to be in a car with me? No one! Ask my girlfriend! Ask me, for God’s sake! I don’t want to be in a car with me!

So maybe, in the end, I’m not a driver at all. Maybe I’ve become the guy at the end of “The Pink Panther” in the zebra costume, the one running after the car chase, post-costume party, that is in progress, just trying to catch up.