' Cinema Romantico

Thursday, June 22, 2017

and then he was done


So Daniel Day-Lewis retired from acting. His announcement bore shades of notoriously demure professional basketball player Tim Duncan who last summer announced his retirement with but a press release. Day-Lewis also went the press release route, handing it off to Variety which published the notice in full. “Daniel Day-Lewis will no longer be working as an actor. He is immensely grateful to all of his collaborators and audiences over the many years. This is a private decision and neither he nor his representatives will make any further comment on this subject.” It is almost Ron-Swanson-ish in its brevity. What else does anyone need to know other than he’s discontinued acting? All other details are irrelevant.

Throughout his legendary career, after all, Day-Lewis was often aloof and fiercely private, though that admirable insistence on maintaining privacy in a profession that put him so squarely in the public eye made it never-endingly easy for that privacy to be errantly transcribed into mystery and that mystery to be errantly transcribed into lunacy. Indeed, his infamous dedication to Method Acting was often portrayed with a lunatic bent in the press, nearly every article or interview with Day-Lewis dutifully recycling the myriad stories of his exhausting preparation and the almost disturbing commitment to remaining in character, all of which provided material for so much comic fodder, which is why every fourth tweet in the wake of his retirement on Tuesday cracked some variation of a joke about Day-Lewis retiring to research a role about an actor retiring.

Granted, he often harmed his own cause by remaining so engimatic on the subject, half-deflecting queries of his process, then sort of offering some vagaries as mock wisdom, mostly expressing his discomfort with having to try and elucidate with words something that he quite simply just did. And his non-acting dalliances, apprenticing as a carpenter and a cobbler, often for years at a time, were also strictly off the record, only furthering the already expansive allure surrounding him.

By shrouding his process in secrecy and by famously being so selective with his roles, each performance he did give felt larger than life, both in the lead up and in what was eventually rendered on screen, which is why it’s so easy to think of him in terms of the towering Daniel Planview or Bill the Butcher. But he could be quiet too, often with an edge, like “Last of the Mohicans” where he was something like an immovable object in the face of a westward expansion, or lacing Abraham Lincoln’s folksy wisdom with just right the amount of political spin, or occasionally with a tenderness, like in “The Boxer”, where for all the rope-jumping and in-the-ring punching he did, he nevertheless played the part so inwardly, like a man who had let all the rage just dissipate from his body until nothing was left other than the last few gentle embers of his soul.

As an actor, I suspect Day-Lewis considered himself as a craftsman, not unlike the carpenter and cobbler he very much became. And for a craftsman, whatever trade he or she might ply, the quality of the finished product is paramount and the only commentary one needs on the process and career behind it. As such, the performances of Daniel Day-Lewis are frozen on film, their quality self-evident. What else do you need to know? He acted, rather righteously, now he doesn’t. All other details are irrelevant.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

We're Gonna Die (a theatre review)

Art, as “Manhattan’s” mononymous Yale once opined, is nothing if not a working through, which Young Jean Lee’s play “We’re Gonna Die” so invigoratingly demonstrates, opening with the Singer of a punkish New Wave band played by the literally (figuratively) ablaze Isa Arciniegas in the Haven Theatre production helmed by Josh Sobel I saw here in Chicago, sauntering on stage and launching not into song but confessional. And while she does eventually kick out the jams, each one is precipitated by a monologue as soul-bearing as it is comical. It suggests an episode of VH1 Storytellers told from a therapy couch. But see, that actually sells “We’re Gonna Die” short because even if it probes the psychological depths of the Singer, it is not a morose personality study or some methodological exploration of the songwriter’s process. It captures, in a way I never really dreamed possible outside the live music experience itself, the way in which rock concerts – whatever the band, whatever the venue – become rhythmic church services of sorts, where sins are ineffably confessed and forgiveness is melodically tendered. By the end, when this production is hurling balloons into the air and dropping confetti from the ceilings, whatever was weighing you down when you walked in has been miraculously lifted.


The Singer’s first confessional concerns a youthful encounter with her Uncle who inadvertently and unknowingly indoctrinated her into the meanness of this world. She explains she turned this harrowing memory into a song which she then performs, mirroring the structure of the whole show, monologue/song, monologue/song. And the rawness and occasionally deliberate unwieldiness of the monologues only works to spotlight how a great song can condense and elucidate what we feel. And the songs are premium all the way through, though they gradually rise in not only quality but meaning, emblematic of any great concert’s ascending route, and filled out by a backing band (Spencer Meeks on guitar & bass, Sarah Giovannetti on drums, Jordan Harris and Elle Walker on keyboards) that could have held its own in the heyday of The Pyramid Club.

The band is present for the whole show, even throughout the Singer’s stories, mostly listening but occasionally chiming in with peanut gallery annotations or comical drum fills, which seemed to me not necessarily planned themselves but just sort of implemented in a Do It When The Spirit Moves You kind of way. This underlines how any great show is spontaneous and wholly original unto itself even if the setlist never varies. Unintentionally this was further illustrated when Arciniegas momentarily got her foot tangled in the microphone chord, grinned knowingly and then carried on, because a great frontwoman is never deterred.

Arciniegas is a great frontwoman. She’s doing that thing, that thing that Bruce Springsteen does in concert, where what he’s saying might obviously be something he’s said many times before but nevertheless effects the power of a preacher’s scripted sermon. Arciniegas, after all, is ministering to the congregation, truly, moving to the edge of the stage and appealing directly to the audience, holding us in the palm of her hand as she lifts us up. The stories she’s telling, while no doubt partly pulled from Young Jean Lee’s own life, are universal, evoking life events familiar to all of us, and that universality is part and parcel to the best concert experiences when everyone in the room is standing up and singing together. And so when the Singer’s concluding monologue inevitably broaches the thorniest subject of them all – namely, death – the show achieves the zenith of universality, holding up everyone’s darkest fear and then just sort of blasting it back with a zero fucks cannonade, jubilantly illuminating how live music not only gives you life, it takes the edge off death.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Some Drivel On...Contact

Director Robert Zemeckis has never shied away from look-what-I-can do technical pizzazz and the opening sequence of “Contact” (1997) is no exception, an outer space set shot that begins at our peaceful blue planet and then pulls back, back and back and back, through the vast reaches of our solar system, past all the planets, including Pluto (which was not excised from the version currently streaming on Amazon Prime leaving me to obviously assume that “Contact” still considers Pluto a planet), and then out of our solar system and into the furthest reaches of the galaxy, as all the while accompanying radio broadcasts grow older and older, as evocative an illustration of distance equaling time as you will cinematically encounter. What really astounds, however, is the scene’s capping shot, when the camera, still moving backwards, seems to emerge from the eye of the main character, Ellie Arraway. “Contact” was just as much A Carl Sagan Film as a Zemeckis film, given that Sagan wrote the book on which the film was based and consulted on its production, and Sagan was a S.E.T.I. advocate, a man who believed in looking, searching for what was out there, a sensation evoked in this shot and throughout by Zemeckis’s oft-fluid camera, like a later shot that starts outside of Ellie’s youthful home before the camera drifts up, finding her through a bedroom window as she sits at her desk with a shortwave radio.


There are other moments, however, particularly later when the movie moves ahead to adult Ellie, with Jodie Foster taking the acting baton, when the camera calms down and focuses, giving way to the stillness of Ellie with a pair of headphones simply listening, suggesting an inner peace that comes from escaping the omnipresent noise of earth for the soothing white noise of space, like a galactic thunderstorms CD, or something. At the same time, however, it is suggestive of a potentially dangerous escapism, tied back to the death of Ellie’s father (David Morse) in the opening scenes and how she goes to her radio transmitter trying to make contact with him through the heavens. This moment is in the wake of a minister telling Ellie that her father’s death means having to accept God’s will, which Ellie refuses to do, discussing it in strictly pragmatic terms, reasoning that if they kept her father’s medicine downstairs he might have lived. Foster lets this hard edge inform her entire performance, where for as much wonder as she gets searching the stars, she has a different streak down here on Earth, good-hearted still, yes, but also combative and rigid in her own science-friendly, liberal worldview.

That worldview is put to the test in the wake of First Contact. Because First Contact brings everyone out of the woodwork, from good ol’ boy politicians (Rob Lowe) to Christians cum terrorists (Jake Busey, doing a fine impersonation of his dad) to the President’s National Security Advisor Michael Kitz (James Woods) to the President’s Scientific Advisor David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt). (Because this was 1997 the President is played by Bill Clinton by editing archival footage of Clinton press conferences into certain scenes. This prompted blowback from the White House, perhaps because it so effortlessly, unintentionally underlines how political press conferences are rife with so many banalities they can be used to say pretty much anything in any context. We continue.)

Many of these supporting parts are written fairly one-note and that, frankly, is just fine, evocative of how such an event causes everyone to retreat to his/her corner and close ranks. In a way, it’s difficult to argue against anyone’s viewpoint, if you allow yourself to see the situation specifically through that person’s eyes, even Drumlin, merely operating on his own behalf, a narcissist to the very end. And that becomes a source of extreme vexation for Ellie, who struggles to see this through anyone else’s eyes, marking her as credibly compelling, a character forced to confront her own insecurities and her belief system’s limitations, a nifty contrast against the limitless expanse of the universe.


This is brought home in her relationship with Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), “a man of the cloth, without the cloth.” This, more than any scientific inaccuracies, which any scientist would be happy to go long on for you, might be the film’s weakest point. Though the questions of science v theology that their relationship engenders are compelling, the chemistry between Foster and McConaughey never comes off. Foster, frankly, plays more to the cosmos in terms of a muse, and even her late father, which means that when the movie has Joss repeat verbatim a line that Ellie’s father says and then Ellie immediately moves in for a kiss, well, like, you know, yikes. And it is almost entirely undone by a late movie moment when Joss, placed on a committee to determine who among a group that includes Ellie will be sent into space to possibly meet these extra-terrestrials, admits he voted against Ellie going because, as he says, “I don’t want to lose you.” For this, she kisses him. I wanted her to punch him in the face.

But, after ample rigmarole she does go. And where she goes is through a wormhole to Vega where she meets not aliens but her father, which is to say she meets aliens who have taken the form of her father and of a childhood dream, of sorts, to say hello, which plays like an advanced civilization’s nod to us Earthlings as boats against the current. Afterwards, an obligatory inquiry of faith, literal and figurative, must and does occur, though its conclusion is an open end, allowing for both sides, religion and science, to intrinsically, if heavy-handedly, emerge and strike something like a truce. It’s rather wonderful. And after first seeing this movie for the first time, on the cusp of adulthood and with so much hope in my heart, 20 years ago in the summer of 1997, I now find myself thinking that the odds of finding extra terrestrials are no doubt better than us American earthlings meeting together on middle ground.


Monday, June 19, 2017

The Mummy

In his tentpole movie roles Tom Cruise often has a supernatural quality resistant to vulnerability. In the exquisite  “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” his otherworldliness is played for a joke. When a certain bit of potential derring-do requires his character to hold his breath underwater for over three minutes, Simon Pegg’s Benji Dunn comically, incredulously remarks “You can do that.” Of course he can! And he does! Tom Cruise is invincible! So it only makes sense, I suppose, that Tom Cruise would need, in this era of cinematic superheroes, his own superhero movie. But what if Marvel or D.C. Comics or whoever else has no need for your services? You find another way in obviously, and so here is Cruise in the re-boot of the Universal Monsters film franchise “The Mummy”, transforming it something less than a project based on a version of the 1932 Boris Karloff character and more the superhero origin story of Cruise’s Nick Morton. I might even be tempted to call Cruise’s move a little brilliant if not for the fact that “The Mummy” is so rarely enjoyable.


Its unenjoyability stems directly from a kind of inadvertent More Becomes Less philosophy, where the myriad writing credits suggest a focused original concept that erupted into an out-of-control cinematic bloomin’ onion. For if its official basis is the Karloff black & white original, its real basis is the Stephen Sommers 1999 “Mummy” reboot, less horror and more action/adventure, even though its conspicuous lack of breezy execution is more in line with Sommers’ atrocious 2004 “Van Helsing.” The latter suffered from monster overload and so does this version of “The Mummy”, stretching to even make room for Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), who occasionally goes Hyde, a non-Universal property that, seeing as how little we get to know him, seems to suggest a move for the next movie in line. Director Alex Kurtzman has made his bones in the business as a producer, a role given to Ideas rather than artistic follow-through, and it shows as he struggles to coalesce this preponderance of material, resulting in a lurching cinematic behemoth which is why more times than I could count he fell back on explanatory voiceovers laid over montages, emitting strong whiffs of editing cover-ups.

The unwieldy story opens with a monologue and montage, in fact, recounting the ancient tale of Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), set to become Pharaoh until her father has a son, stealing her birthright, the impetus for her giving her soul to the Egyptian God Set for a special dagger with an extra-special gem to kill her father and his son and then sacrifice her lover as a means to give Set bodily form. Alas, she is stopped pre-sacrifice, arrested, mummified, and entombed alive, while the dagger’s gem finds itself re-located to England. It is the tomb that Nick Morton (Cruise) and his sidekick Chris Vail (Jake Johnson), military contractors cum grave robbers, discover in present-day Iraq and remove from its resting place which, as it must, arouses Ahmanet to mummified life to unleash unholy terror trying to finish the job at which she failed so many centuries ago.

This is not an uninteresting opening. That Nick and Chris find the tomb at all is owed to an airstrike on an insurgent stronghold, just as the all-important gem to Ahmanet’s dagger is discovered in London on account tunnel construction, little seemingly throwaway plot details that actually underline the intrusion of man into an ancient world where they do not belong. To that point, the shots of Nick and company descending into The Mummy’s prison, where mercury floats in the air, evokes modern men out of time, and vice-versa. The film’s most comical line, in fact, for good and bad, is Ahmanet in the present day explaining her age-old evil: “It was a different time.”


That sentiment might be challenged by Jenny Halsey (Anabelle Wallis), archaeologist, obligatory love interest for Nick and member of Dr. Jekyll’s Justice League-ish anti-evil contingent, who enters the picture by literally punching Nick in the face for his roguish behavior, though that is pretty much the high point of her fieriness, as she gradually morphs from Marion Ravenwood into Willie Scott. In the second half of the film Jenny is reduced to doing nothing much more than following Nick into cavernous, ominous rooms and saying his name over and over and over. “Nick?” she’ll say, as if she’s afraid of the dark.

Though Ahmanet is not afraid of the dark, her character is essentially shunted there anyway, taking a backseat to Nick, who takes the form of her lover in the present day so that she can slay him to unleash Set on the here and now. That it does not go quite as planned goes without saying, though, of course, it is part of “The Mummy’s” broader plan all along, wherein Ahmanet, for all the power she possesses, is nothing more than a conduit to conferring supernatural status on Nick to make him, for all intents and purposes, a superhero in order to no doubt propagate so many superhero sequels. Alas, Tom Cruise’s greatest supernatural feat would be getting a sequel to this stinkbomb greenlit.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Friday's Old Fashioned: Fail-Safe (1964)

Late in Sidney Lumet’s “Fail-Safe” (1964), long after the group of six American bomber planes have infiltrated Soviet airspace with the intention of dropping their payload on Moscow, not long after The President (Henry Fonda) has openly offered a self-inflicted retaliation against New York City to the Soviets as something like a peace offering to hopefully prevent Soviet retaliation and the genuine outbreak of WWIII, The President, sequestered in a bunker deep in the White House, leans back in his chair and remarks to his Russian Translator (Larry Hagman) about the weather. “Looked like rain earlier,” The President says. It’s a jarring moment, meteorological small talk as nuclear war threatens, and while it easily could have slipped into comedy, intentionally or unintentionally, Fonda doesn’t let it, playing a man not so much suddenly distracted as a man just deliberately looking for a little momentary distraction, to get his mind right by letting it settle on this one ordinary thing. It is a human moment and interjected into so much madness, and it is very important.


“Fail Safe” was released not long after Stanley Kubrick’s seminal “Dr. Strangelove”, which played nuclear holocaust for farce, albeit truthful farce and Fonda said that if he’d seen “Dr. Strangelove” prior to filming “Fail Safe” he wasn’t sure he could have played his own version of The President straight. It’s a good line, but I’m not sure I buy it. Not just because Fonda was a titan, mind you, but because of moments like Fonda’s President ruminating on the weather, remaining slightly yet monumentally human against all the doomsday odds. After all, the impetus for so much comical tragedy in “Dr. Strangelove” was a human losing his marbles and the escalating impossibility of other humans correcting that human’s misdeeds because all the other humans prove to be blithering, pompous idiots too.

“Fail Safe” yearns to maintain a human connection. You see this partly in the brief set-up, which takes time to introduce characters outside the Washington sphere, like the wife and children of Brigadier General Black (Dan O’Herlihy), though just as acutely, and much more strangely, in the half-liaison between national defense advisor Professor Groeteschele (Walter Matthau) and Ilsa Wolfe (Nancy Berg), some sort of abstract version of a socialite, who meet at what is apparently a pre-dawn cocktail party (which in its mere existence suggests some sort of beltway netherworld worthy of further exploration) where he is holding court and she watches, smoking, from afar.

Later, when Groeteschele goes to his car, Ilsa is embedded in the front seat, and a morning drive turns into something like nihilist erotica, where the thought of the annihilation of all living things seems to excite her, itself suggesting another alternate movie where Ilsa might make like Jeanne Moreau in “Elevator to the Gallows”, just wandering the District, a pensive pursuit beyond rationality, indifferent to the surrounding chaotic world. She is attracted to him because of his seemingly cavalier attitude toward the Cold War, but when she makes a move on him, he slaps her. He says “I’m not your kind”, which is not a sexist riposte, even if Matthau lets a sexism burble up from his character anyway, but an explication of how he is less aroused by war than conditioned to think rationally about it.


That rationality remains on display throughout, from the ground to the sky, where the bomber pilots infiltrating Soviet airspace, despite the palpable desperation in their eyes, know they are duty bound to forge ahead. The fail safes put in place by men are, in the end, too good to overcome, a nasty irony in which “Fail Safe” does not so much delight in as reluctantly, if frightfully, surrender to. The majority of people on screen here, while made to confront the error of their ways, are portrayed as fundamentally decent, which becomes the greatest tragedy of all. If “Dr. Strangelove” argued that if, left to idiots, we would incinerate ourselves then “Fail Safe” argues that even if we are left, mostly, to levelheaded thinkers we still might incinerate ourselves.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The 25 Best Michael Shannon Films of the 21st Century So Far

Last week, as you may know, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, esteemed film critics at The New York Times, published a list provocatively titled The 25 Best Films of the 21st Century So Far. It, as such lists will, sparked other critics to construct their 25 Best Films of the 21st Century So Far, and then other critics to construct their 25 Best Films of the 21st Century So Far, on until forever. And whereas lists like this should be good conversation starters or nice additions to an ongoing cultural discussion, mostly they are just triggers for outrage, which is a real shame, because, as Richard Brody, highbrow New Yorker critic who has thankfully never not owned his love of lists, notes in the introduction to his 25 Best Films of the 21st Century So Far list: "one reads different critics for different perspectives and different tastes."

Exactly. And you don't come to Cinema Romantico in the wake of The 25 Best Films of the 21st Century So Far lists to get our 25 Best Films of the 21st Century So Far list. That's not how we roll. So here's this list, assembled in absolutely no particular order whatsoever, instead.

The 25 Best Michael Shannon Films of the 21st Century So Far


Shotgun Stories. If Shannon has perfected the Dimensional Hothead then this might be the first performance where he nailed it, portraying a short-tempered southern man who wants to overcome Who He Is but will never cow Where He Comes From.

Premium Rush. If you are playing the stock villain in a bike messenger thriller you'd be forgiven for simply showing up and collecting your paycheck as you go through the motions. But Shannon, bless his heart, not only plays something, a weasel convinced the whole stinking world is out to get him, he wraps that something up with all kinds of comically terrifying emoting. This performance is proof positive that, if born in a different era, he would have been perhaps the greatest silent film villain of all time.

Nocturnal Animals. There is a moment where Shannon, his character's health revealed to be much less than tip-top and unable to stomach food because of it, is told to eat something. The way in which Shannon vehemently shovels a forkful of food into his mouth says more about the burden of enduring pain than any twelve hundred disease of the week movies combined.

Midnight Special. The Kid With Special Powers is the point here, which Shannon plays straight to, playing down because every move he makes is all about the kid.

Elvis & Nixon. His Elvis is majestic, by which I mean it is not majestic at all, a purposeful Vegas impersonation of Elvis at a time in Elvis's life when Elvis had, more or less, become an impersonation of himself.

They Came Together. I hated this movie. I mean, I really hated it. But when Michael Shannon came tearing in bearing his classic Shannon rage face for his, like, six second cameo, man, that was still the best.


Frank & Lola. I watched this on my laptop while my girlfriend was watching something else on TV, marking us as a truly modern American couple, and when I burst out laughing she turned to me and asked "What's so funny?" I replied, "Michael Shannon was just staring at this guy."

The Runaways. It's sorta like Paul Giamatti's Eugene Landy melded with R. Lee Ermey's Gunnery Sergeant Hartman if he was in a futuristic 80s rock opera.

Return. As the spouse of a soldier returned from Iraq, Shannon emits an aloofness hinting at his character's secret, but he also knows this is Linda Cardellini's movie through and through and simultaneously, quietly cedes the stage.

The Missing Person. One of the best comic bits that isn't really a comic bit at all of this century is Michael Shannon as an exhausted, irritated private detective trying to buy a cellphone that "takes pictures" while the cellphone store guy keeps trying to upsell him. My girlfriend knows this scene all too well even though she hasn't seen it because I quote it all the time in my terrible Michael Shannon impression. "I just [beat] want a phone [beat] that takes [beat] pictures."

Complete Unknown. For whatever issues this movie might have had, I still kind of loved it, and I loved Shannon in it, the way he burned not so much with anger at the betrayal of Rachel Weisz's character as envy for what she has gone and done.


Take Shelter. It's absurd to call any one Shannon performance the "best" since nearly every performance he gives is, in its own way, stone cold solid, but no Shannon performance, we can be sure, is better than "Take Shelter", where he's playing a father and a husband with something like a cosmic itch he can't scratch, loving yet terrified that his love alone won't be enough. I always think of Shannon in terms of the moment in this movie when he is standing beneath a lightning strewn sky that may or may not be real and rhetorically asks "Is anyone seeing this?" I feel like that so often when I'm watching Shannon. I want to turn to strangers in the theater and ask, bewildered, "Is anyone seeing this?"

Bug. Delusional and unhinged yet so righteously true to what might not be true that he just sort of swoops up and then carries along Ashley Judd's character in his wake, and, in turn, Shannon & Judd themselves become accomplices in pushing past The Great Barrier.

Mud. He's barely in this modernish Mark Twain adventure but makes his couple scenes as a single father count, playing totally erratic yet still, somehow, in the moment of truth, emotionally present for his son.

The Iceman. People are always seeing a movie they didn't like and saying something to the effect of "I just didn't care about the main character." In "The Iceman", as a vicious, vicious hitman, Michael Shannon, understand, does not care that you don't care about his character.

8 Mile. Playing Kim Basinger's abusive boyfriend, there's a lot of cliché inherent in his rage though he transcends it by communicating in the spaces in-between how if you just poked your thumb into his heaving chest, he would probably just topple over.

Freeheld. Shannon is sort of giving the Denzel Washington performance in a much, much worse "Philadelphia", though that's also selling him short because he's doing his own thing, allowing resentment and surprise not to erupt but just sort of burble and then evaporate in the name of of tolerance.

Revolutionary Road. Michael Shannon can see through your shit. That's what nearly every interview with Shannon reveals. And that's what made him so perfect to play John Givings, who's there specifically to see through April and Frank Wheeler's shit and call them on it. And, as everyone knows, when Michael Shannon calls you on your shit, the trumpets sound and the walls collapse.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. The thing Michael Shannon does when he says "'Sorry' ain't gonna pay the bills, Chico" is, on certain days, the funniest thing in the history of the world.


Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. If takes someone special to look at turned-up-to-eleven Crazy Eyes Nic Cage with calm suspicion and not get blown off the screen. Shannon does it.

World Trade Center. It takes a certain kind of commited zeal to play a real life guy - Dave Karnes - who just kind of felt himself spiritually summoned to Ground Zero and went with the flow. Shannon has that zeal, not playing it outwardly with great elan but inwardly, like it's something he cannot explain, doesn't particularly care to but must abide by nevertheless.

99 Homes. If Charles Darwin had vaped and been around during the 2008 Financial Crisis.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. We are only including this one, which I have not seen, because Shannon said he fell asleep while trying to watch it which is just so righteous.

Cecil B. Demented. As one part of a pack of movie anarchists, or thereabouts, this early career role has always made me ponder an alternate reality where Shannon took fewer and less bigger roles and remained more underground, like a more intense Michael J. Pollard.

Pearl Harbor. So here's a story and I swear it's true. When I saw this movie in the theater way back when, I came out of it, dazed and depressed, remembering only two things. I remembered Alec Baldwin saying "Leave your goddam hula shirts at home." And I remembered this guy, this guy I didn't know, this guy at the Pearl Harbor air force base who, when Josh Hartnett walks up and asks "Y'all pilots?" said "We're working on it. It's a lot of switches and stuff." Except he didn't, like, completely say it; he kind of, like, mumbled it, but mumbled it in this way that was sort of subtly calling Hartnett's character on his uppity shit although I don't think Hartnett's character (or Hartnett himself) even realized that's what was happening. God, did those mumbled lines resonate. A few years later I realized that Michael Shannon was the guy who mumbled.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Best College Football Movie Is Not Rudy Dammit


Apologies for the click-bait-ish headline, which we try to avoid here, but the subject of college football movies, given my adoration of the sport despite its infinite foibles, is a sore one at this blog. The subject of college football movies was raised yet again last week when a reader asked Stewart Mandel, senior college football columnist at FoxSports, to name his favorite movie related to the sport. I quote Mr. Mandel in full:

So, I’ve noticed something recently with these “greatest sports movie” arguments. People tend to fall into two camps. You’re either partial to the campy Hollywood ones with a feel-good ending, or, you’re partial to the “edgy” Hollywood ones that aren’t particularly good but aren’t as overtly cheesy. 
“The Program” falls into the latter category. It’s full of lazy clichés about seediness in college football, but it’s undeniably entertaining. And it’s hard to argue with a film that includes both Halle Berry AND consummate ‘90s babe Kristy Swanson. It’s no “Blue Chips” as far as the “exposing the shocking underbelly of mid-‘90s college sports” genre, but it’s pretty good IF this is your preferred type of sports movie. 
Me? I’m campy. I love “Hoosiers.” I cried the first time I saw “Field of Dreams.” If “Remember the Titans” comes on TV, I’m not turning it off. 
And to that end, the greatest college football movie is … “Rudy,” of course. It gets me every time. They’re not really going to put him in the game, are they? No way! And he gets the sack! Unbelievable! Ru-dy! Ru-dy! 
Also, highly underrated college football recruiting parody: “Johnny Be Good.” Anthony Michael Hall as the hot-shot quarterback, Uma Thurman as his girlfriend, Robert Downey Jr. as the best friend. Find it. Late-‘80s gold.

Ugh. It is not simply that “Rudy” is, as the esteemed Charlie Pierce once poetially put it, “a passel of unreconstructed mythopoeic bullpucky even by the standards of the university in question, which are considerable”, though it absolutely is. And it is not simply that even to I, an avowed Uma-ite, and adorer of much 80s brie, “Johnny Be Good” is just a bridge too far, though this is most assuredly true. And it is not that I necessarily dislike “The Program”, which Mr. Mandel’s writer cited as his own favorite college football movie, though I would not necessarily deem it any great shakes. It’s just that, well, c’mon, man.

Perhaps it is asking too much for a college football columnist to spend his free time seeking out classic film, but nearly every Best College Football Movie listicle you come across, even those assembeled by people who, in theory, should have a historical grasp of the game they cover, seems to have no concept of a pre-1980s movie era. Like, college football was much more popular pre-WWII, and just after, than it is now. Back then, before the real rise of professional football, before the advent of the NBA, college football, was probably America’s second favorite sport after baseball. This means that the Golden Age of cinema is rife with college football movies, from The Marx Brothers’ “Horse Feathers” (1932) to “The Spirit of West Point” (1947) which starred Army Football’s fabled Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard as themselves. But the best of the bunch, and the best college football movie I have ever seen, is 1933’s “College Coach.”


Centering on a fictional university that is going broke and hires a win-at-all-costs Coach (Pat O’Brien) to field the best college football team in the country to put fannies in the seats to bolster business, with players getting preferential treatment and noble professors who object to athletics superseding academics essentially being instructed to go along or get out, “College Coach” echoes the incredibly faulty moral line on which college football runs. That sounds edgy, and it is, even including the death of a football player, a problem that still plagued the sport in the 30s, though director William Wellman, despite working in the pre-code era, when he could have been as dark as he wanted to be, brilliantly opted to dress the whole thing up in the pomp & pageantry emblematic of the sport’s gaudy surface.

There is rampant rah-rah music, even a few musical numbers, a lot of coachspeak blarney, and a narrative hinging, as it must, on One Big Game. In other words, Wellman filters his edginess through camp, an illustration of how the former is so often obscured, then and now, because of the latter, shattering the barrier that Mr. Mandel attempts to erect between the two categories, proving that a great sports movie does not have to be one or the other; it can be both. You just have to be, like, you know, willing to watch a movie in black & white where people talk in those pesky Mid-Atlantic accents.