' ' Cinema Romantico

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Christmas in Rome

“Christmas in Rome” (2019) received fanfare in quarters where people concern themselves with made-for-TV movies and their typical minor-league production values for being shot – partly – on location in Rome, not simply saying it’s Rome and then placing the characters in bakeries with murals of The Colosseum, though that happens in “Christmas in Rome” too. And so, part of the charm of director Ernie Barbarash’s film is simply getting to see Rome; now they’re standing in front of The Colosseum, now they’re standing in front of Trevi Fountain. But you can’t make a movie just out of scenery, not in the narrative-driven world of Hallmark, and so “Christmas in Rome” is ostensibly about connecting these places to the city’s pace and spirit and air, which it does with varying success. The Italian dinners are weirdly frugal rather than lavish, only ever showing dessert as if the budget was all spent on locations and couldn’t even spring for a freaking plate of Cacio e pepe. Barbarash is more successful, however, in enlisting wise old pro Franco Nero for a supporting role, lending the kind of gravity these movies do not really deserve, a la Steven Weber in “Return to Christmas Creek” (2018) whose eyes seemed to suggest Christmas nostalgia was just another term for clinical depression. And Nero, bless his soul, embodies the air of an Eternal City as much as any cinematographic postcard op.

Business defines “Christmas in Rome” as much as Christmas, emblemized in the scene where we first meet Oliver Martin (Sam Page), who will be dispatched from an American corporation to try and buy the Christmas ornament company of Luigi Forlinghetti (Nero) as Barbarash cuts from the twirling pen in the hand of Oliver’s colleague to the Christmas mug Oliver holds in his own hand. This might seem to suggest that business and the holidays – and by extension, pleasure – don’t mix. Indeed, upon his arrival in Rome, Oliver spends his ride from the airport ignoring the sites flying by his window, burying his head in his laptop, and later, upon learning The Colosseum was built in just 10 years notes the impressive productivity, a line that sounds like a stretch unless you have experienced people who truly believe corporate jargon is a romance language. But when Oliver encounters Lacey Chabert’s Angela, things gradually begin to change, and not just because Luigi explains that he will only sell his company to someone who embraces the spirit of Rome.

Of course, the very conventions of Hallmark Christmas movies is antithetical to Dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing, never mind la gioia de bere uno spritz Campari. Structurally, these movies must hit certain dramatic beats every fifteen minutes or so to keep viewers tuned in through commercial breaks. And though I know it’s utterly absurd to think one of these assembly line movies could ever ditch its narrative midstream and espouse nothing but vibes, well, as previously established, “Christmas in Rome” was (partly) made in Rome and When in Rome, dammit...WHEN.IN.ROME. [Heavy sigh.] For what it’s worth, though, Chabert works great in this role because her energy is more relaxed, not the frenzied, drunk on Holiday Muzak air of so many Hallmark leading ladies, and Page does a decent job of letting you see that company man shell crack. Really, though, it’s Nero who brings the whole movie home. Playing a character immune to Oliver’s corporate commandments, Nero evokes a solemnity, not a stuffiness, rendering Luigi’s devotion to arts and leisure as almost religious. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Misapplications of Star Power

“Eternals”, the 554th movie in the ongoing 10 jillion Marvel movie series, opened over the weekend. As I did not see it, I have no thoughts. Or, at least, I should have no thoughts. Because if I did not see it, what is there to say? And yet. I’m sorry, I just can’t help myself. Because during the week social media was inundated with an “Eternals” clip, one uploaded by the MarvelHD+ Twitter handle, showing Angelina Jolie, 54th moon of Jupiter, with some kind of glowing movie weapon in each hand, twirling and fighting a dragon [Editor: plz verify if dragon]. “Who cares about the Rotten Tomatoes score,” MarvelHD+ asked, “I came here for Angelina Jolie being a badass.” Show me someone who professes not to care about a Rotten Tomatoes score and I will show you someone who cares about a Rotten Tomatoes score all the livelong day aside, this post was a kind of pre-riposte, I assume, to the people who tend to crap all over these movies. Of course, the clip lent itself to all kinds of crap, given the glaringly obvious cut from green screen to real location. It’s not as bad as the late period Elvis movie where you can literally see the stuntman fall from a window and land safely on the ground when the editing cut is a beat to slow, but it, eh, wasn’t good, especially for something that cost [eyes bulge] $200 million? Honestly, though, what bothered me most about the clip wasn’t even the editing, though yikes, but the whole intent of the post in the first place.

There is another whole post to be written here, one about Jolie being, as MarvelHD+ said, a badass, underlining how often that is the only way in which we, the general audience, can think of complex female characters: as badasses. For purposes of this post, though, I don’t want to define badass as that kind of badass but as Movie Star. I know, I know, I’m sorry, loyal frustrated followers, I go on and on (and on) about Movie Stars, about the properly using the camera to harness their power, about how Angelina Jolie is rarely utilized as the Movie Star she is and here I go again. But has it ever been laid so plain as in that clip? Imagine if you were looking at the 54th moon of Jupiter at some cutting-edge observatory but someone on the other end of the telescope was futzing things up with a hand puppet show. And though “Wanted (2008)”, while not Marvel, was a comic book movie too, despite an abundance of its own action movie dipsy doo, like curving bullets, it contained one of the preeminent case studies in Jolie Movie Stardom. 

It happens at a pharmacy where meek cubicle lifer Wesley (James McAvoy), destined, as characters in such movies are, to become a super duper secret assassin, has gone to pick up a prescription. As he waits in line, he senses someone to his left and looks over. 

That someone not so casually tries to act as if he was not looking, ducking back behind the shelf.

We return to the previous shot, though now Angelina Jolie’s subtly named Fox has entered the frame. And...that’s it. She’s not in the shot and then she is in the shot. In this moment, at least, director Timur Bekmambetov honored the ancient cinematic equation, Less = More, a reminder that silver screen immortality can be summoned from nothing more than just standing there.

Tuesday, November 09, 2021

Some Drivel On...The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

“The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (2004) arrived after Wes Anderson’s twin critical triumphs of “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums”, providing him with the indie version of a blank check movie ($50 million), to go bigger than ever before. In a way he did, rendering his own version of an action movie, replete with shootouts and a big rescue scene. At the same time, though, rather than departing from the aesthetic meticulousness and emotional melancholy of his previous movies, he intensified them so that, depending on your view, it was a breaking point or a crowning point. For me, it was the latter. In fact, when I was on my friend Ryan McNeil’s The Matinee podcast a few years ago and he asked me, as he does every guest, the movie I most wish I had directed, I said “The Life Aquatic”, for a leisurely narrative juxtaposed against filmmaking precision and for the mood Anderson creates, one of longing and regret, like life has not so much passed you by as unwittingly gotten away from you, rendered as absurd as it is affecting. 

Anderson based Zissou on Jacques Costeau, the beloved French filmmaking oceanographer, right down to the famous red beanie. Of course, for all his conservation and groundbreaking exploration, he made a mess of things at home, fathering an entire second and secret family with his mistress, which has only caused bitter divides over his legacy in the years since his death. Anderson does not elide such emotional disorder in his Costeau-like character, brought home in Steve’s confession, rendered in immaculate Bill Murray deadpan, that “I haven’t been at my best the last decade.” That describes Steve’s filmmaking too. “The Life Aquatic” opens with his latest documentary flopping on opening night, the genuine tragedy of the mysterious Jaguar shark eating Steve’s longtime oceanographer partner Esteban (Seymour Cassel) treated like a storytelling stretch and Steve’s proclamation that he will exact revenge on the Jaguar shark in his next movie shrugged off. Afterwards, an old man approaches Steve to sign some posters of Zissou movies past, that famously exacting Wes Anderson production design utilized not as an end unto itself but a mammoth emblematic gesture, bringing Steve face to face with his former self. Weary with autographing so many, Steve tells the old man to forge the rest, essentially deeming his own legacy counterfeit.

That is not all complicating his legacy. There is also the appearance of Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), claiming to be Steve’s son from a long-ago love affair, and Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), a reporter doing a story on Zissou. The latter sometimes feels like nothing more than a device for additional tension between the might-be father and son, though she also shines a harsh spotlight on Steve’s faded glory, confessing her magazine, Oceanographer Explorer, was apathetic toward the profile and that she’s covering her own expenses. “That’s what it used to be like,” sighs Klaus (Willem Dafoe), Steve’s second-in-command, as the crew watches one of their older works, an incendiary comic evocation of wallowing in nostalgia. Then again, even here, Murray’s slightly puffed-up countenance suggests the showboat Jane pegs him as later. 

His emergent relationship to Ned proves similarly prickly, with stops and starts, a possible dad confessing he never wanted to be dad trying to be one anyway, yet often seeming to treat Ned with the same indifferent air he treats the bevy of hapless unnamed, unpaid interns. The relationship has undertones of both Royal (Gene Hackman) and Chas (Ben Stiller) Tenenbaum and Royal and Richie (Luke Wilson) Tenenbaum just as Steve Zissou himself echoes Royal. Hackman was never an actor concerned with likability, and Murray, I suppose wasn’t either, even though he excelled at making unlikable characters likable anyway. That’s what he sort of did in “Rushmore”, and in 2003’s “Lost in Translation” too, never mind the ultimate antihero Peter Venkman. In “The Life Aquatic”, on the other hand, Murray strains all the likability out, playing a pompous prick, rendering the homophobia and misogyny that comes out of his mouth as sudden as it is nonplussed, someone who has grown tired of himself and is all too willing to take it out on everyone around him, manifesting the same bitter taste as his favorite drink: Campari on the rocks. 

The ocean, then, would seem to be Steve’s remedy. But even if there are occasional glimpses, like Steve thinking fast by employing a champagne flute to save a pony fish, the very fact that he wants to kill the Jaguar shark denotes a creeping dislike of the water too, the one place that ostensibly would make him happy, just as the dolphins who swim with his ship mentally torment him more than his nominal nemesis Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum). (“Son of a bitch, I’m sick of these dolphins,” is the retroactive 2004 Line of the Year.) In the end, though, when Zissou and his entire team cram into a small submersible and come face to face with the Jaguar shark, something strange and mystical happens, emotions you didn’t even know were in there suddenly suddenly bubbling to the surface. I’ve never liked that Bill Paxton line toward the end of “Titanic”, about how he “never let it in,” maybe because he had to say it at all, and “The Life Aquatic” never makes Steve say it here. The moment merely embodies it, even as the Jaguar slips away, as potent a metaphor for the fleeting beauty of life as I have ever seen. 

Monday, November 08, 2021


Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” is massive. It is so massive that it begins with a disclaimer, in a manner of speaking, that this is merely Part One, a 155 minute long, $165 million prologue. Indeed, the movie’s last line is a character proclaiming “this is only the beginning”, which made me laugh out loud, truly the funniest moment in the whole movie. That’s not a bad thing. The last line of “Kill Bill Vol. 1” made me laugh out loud too. Maybe I’m ok with the cliffhangers of “Kill Bill” and “Dune” because they are in service of a larger story that we ultimately know will fit together rather than cliffhangers as subterfuge meant to extend mere content into infinity, or maybe the fact that Dune Part 2 had not even been given the go-ahead when Villeneuve declared this Part 1 is the kind of Cimino-ish brass balls of Old (New) Hollywood I totally dig. Really, though, I give “Dune’s” cliffhanger a pass because of just how deftly Villeneuve builds to a moment that made me care. There is a deliberate vibe to this “Dune” that, despite the jaw-dropping spectacle surrounding it, can be distancing, making you wonder if this movie that concludes in the desert will just sort of reveal itself as a mirage. But a movie that doesn’t really pay off, since it can’t by design, also does pay off, strange as that might sound, with a long, winding arc that only starts coming into view by about minute 140.

Frank Herbert’s book, on which “Dune” is based, is massive too. It is so massive that many reviews of Villeneuve’s adaptation spend paragraph after paragraph explaining the book, who is who and what is what and why it’s all like this, before segueing into comments on David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation, what it got wrong and what it got right and how it compares to this “Dune” for good and for bad, and why the book has so long thought to be quote-unquote unfilmable. Villeneuve, though, leans into the enormity of the challenge by eschewing clever delivery devices for the exposition to instead just sort of have his characters stand around and say it. That might sound like a negative, but I mean it as a positive, with Villeneuve casting the kind of vocally muscular actors (Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Momoa) who can make lines about the various noble houses and diatribes on the precious substance spice and declarations of aspirant desert power, sound convincing. Honestly, I have no idea what they were even going on about half the time and I didn’t really care. Though the movie takes place in 10191, the reliance on ancient weaponry underlines how much of this feels less like sci-fi than a sword and sandals epic, with characters standing before spectacular vistas and in enormous rooms to hash things out, bombastic talkiness a la “The Ten Commandments.”

At its core, and without getting too hung up on the Brobdingnagian language, the story is fairly simple: Leto (Isaac), Duke of the House of Atreides, agrees to take control of Arrakis, the desert planet harboring so much special spice, only to be double-crossed by the villainous Baron, an as ever unsmiling Stellan Skarsgård sort of cosplaying Pizza the Hutt if Pizza the Hutt had Sebastian Shaw’s helmetless Darth Vader head, who cuts a deal with the Emperor to wipe Leto’s House out and kill his son Paul (Timothée Chalamet), preventing the potential Messiah from living out his potential Messianic destiny. Villeneuve eschews whatever commentary on fascism might be embedded in the material here to craft his own kind of space opera, forgoing the swashbuckling, B movie appeal of “Star Wars” for something closer to the dread-filled tension of his own “Sicario.” The small winged vessels on Arrakis reminiscent of dragonflies reduces humans in the desert to something like insects in the human world while the sequence of rescuing spice miners ahead of a giant sandworm burrowing toward mines great suspense from omniscient aerial shots making it seem as if we are counting down the approach of a pulverizing thunderstorm. And it speaks to how, for all the palace intrigue, bit by bit “Dune” gives way to nothing more than a coming of age story filtered through a chase movie as Paul and his mother, Lady Jessica (Ferguson), must flee through the desert, trying to stay ahead of the bad guys, while the young man’s purpose comes into focus.

Chalamet is not channeling any kind of traditional action hero so much as the brooding detachment of Natalie Portman in “Mars Attacks!” Through this prism, the massive sets do not simply serve themselves but emphasize just how much Paul has to shoulder and how he does not always come across like someone interested in it, “sullen and superior,” to quote the Stewart O’Nan book I just happen to be reading in talking about the prevailing mood of teenagers, “tending some secret drama.” It’s an unlikely slow burn performance, one that is not necessarily off-putting but not exactly engaging yet setting you up for the eventual turn. Out there in the desert, the reoccurring mentions of its power crystallize, Paul’s elliptical visions of the Fremen, desert dwellers of Arrakis, embedded throughout beginning to make sense, both to him and to us as Chalamet lets a fire into his eyes and his aloofness metamorphose into understanding. I did not even need to grasp the energy shields surrounding characters to know that when it is suddenly not there during Paul’s climactic battle, he has emerged from his shell. And just like that, I felt my shields coming down too, yearning for Part 2. Unless, of course, Part 2 is stretched into Parts 3 and 4 and 5, etc.; then I might have to reevaluate. 

Friday, November 05, 2021

Friday's Old Fashioned: Decision at Sundown (1957)

Reversals are a storytelling hallmark of movie screenplays. In a 2005 book “Writing For Emotional Impact”, Karl Iglesias cited the reversal as “a change from one situation to its opposite, like going from rich to poor, happy to sad, ally to enemy, or vice versa”, a more formal description of what crack screenwriter Tony Gilroy once told The New Yorker is a way of keeping the audience interested. Myriad movies employ reversals as a storytelling technique but I’m not sure I’ve seen one take the reversal so far so effectively as Budd Boetticher’s “Decision at Sundown”, based off a novel by Vernon L. Fluharty and adapted for the screen by Charles G. Lang. It is chock full of reversals, reorienting again and again what we know and what we think we know, where even one character’s ongoing desire just to get something to eat is eventually turns around itself. There are so many reversals that even as the movie ends, the biggest one is still in store, like a rug on top of a rug waiting to be pulled out from under us, flipping the genre’s inherent age-old ideas of heroism and vengeance into the trash.

“Decision at Sundown” begins with Bart Allison (Randolph Scott) stopping a stagecoach in which he is riding by drawing his gun, seeming as if he’s going to stick it up, only to reveal that he was merely meeting up with his friend Sam (Noah Beery Jr.), galloping up with a second horse in tow. It’s something of an odd opening, drumming up suspense only to instantly deflate it, though it also helpfully sets the tone of reversals. Nothing, not even this, is what it seems. Their destination is the town of Sundance where Bart intends to kill the local boss, Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll). In these scenes, as Bart bullies the barber into keeping his shop open so he can get a shave and exchanging insults with the Sheriff at the saloon, Scott evinces the smug air of a villain, which is why when Bart learns it happens to be Tate’s wedding day, he hardly bats an eye. Gradually, though, as Bart’s motivation becomes clear, that Kimbrough seduced his wife and drove her to suicide, sympathy shifts. It does not render Bart courageous, necessarily, but at least understandable. And though “Decision at Sundown” is set up as Bart seeking to fulfill his gunslinger quest, once he riles things up by invading the marriage ceremony and making plain his threat to Kimbrough, Boetticher expands his movie into something else. 

Though Bart and Sam find themselves holed up in a livery stable, Boetticher foregoes accentuating the claustrophobia and moves the story outside to take in the whole town. We watch as Kimbrough, Carroll essentially playing Harvey Korman as Hedley Lamarr with a straight(er) face, demonstrates his hold over Sundown even as the town drunk, giving liquid courage a whole new meaning, emblemizes how the town gradually begins turning on its boss instead. Kimbrough’s fiancé (Karen Steele) eventually breaks off their engagement, though this feels perfunctory, as does her character. That is not, however, to say that Boetticher entirely shortchanges his female characters. Kimbrough’s girlfriend Ruby (Valerie French), on the verge of graduating to mistress, might repeatedly be stranded on the edge of frames in the movie’s multitude of group shots, but that only epitomizes her lack of agency. She grasps this lack too, finally taking action near the end.

Just as we, the audience, are conditioned to expect a final shootout in the middle of the street between Bart and Kimbrough, so too are Bart and Kimbrough conditioned to expect that shootout. In fact, in the scene just before Kimbrough goes out to meet his adversary, a little unexpected humanity is admitted into the character as he confesses to being scared, to not wanting to go through with it but knowing decorum, in a matter of speaking, demands it. This moment foreshadows the biggest and least likely reversal, in which the shootout never comes to pass, both the bullet Ruby plugs in Kimbrough’s shoulder and Sundown’s demand that Kimbrough leave town and never come back preventing Bart from seeing through his bloodthirstiness. In effect, he is denied the ending he expects, just as we are, which rather than heralding a moment of clarity only enhances his rage, leaving him the kind of static character not typically associated with such a protagonist. And though the script might overdo imparting this point with words, Scott is magnificent nonetheless, as if his long-burning, now remediless, rage is eating him from the inside-out.

Thursday, November 04, 2021

The Kid Detective

“The Kid Detective”, as it turns out, is not really a kid, but a thirtysomething man, Abe Applebaum (Adam Brody). He was once a Kid Detective in the mold of Encyclopedia Brown, star of Willowbrook, graduating from a treehouse to a real office with a secretary. Rather than move on to something else, however, he stayed as he was, like if David Wooderson in “Dazed and Confused” didn’t hang around long after graduation to hook up with girls and deal pot but to solve the cases of missing cats. The townfolk who once looked at him as a rising star now look at him with commiseration and contempt, including his parents. His youthful roommate makes Abe feel like a college dropout who never got around to leaving town. All seems lost until a real case provides the chance to prove himself, as writer/director Evan Morgan niftily turns the old noir chestnut about the P.I. looking to make one last stand in a life that has let him down into an immature man’s last chance to grow up.

Spurring him toward growth is high-schooler Caroline (Sophie Nélisse), who walks into Abe’s office one day asking him to find out who murdered her boyfriend. Abe expresses shock that she could care so much about him, given that they dated but a few months, though she points out their relationship was in high school years, a comically acute rendering of how time speeds up as you age, leaving you in the dust, which is how Abe looks sitting there, like someone left in the dust of past glories. There is something nifty in the casting of Brody, who got his break nearly 20 years ago in Fox’s teen drama “The O.C.”, meaning that sorta like Jason Priestley before him, Brody was effectively aged into high school forever, ensuring teenagedom is how we would always think of him, even as years passed and he got bigger, older, lines on his face. Brody himself has copped to how much of his “O.C.” character Seth Cohen he still carries with him, how people see him through that prism. And that some of Seth Cohen will always be in Brody intrinsically makes his playing the part of Abe Applebaum funnier, like someone trying to shake out all those misconceptions of his youth, still stuck playing a part he is simultaneously trying to leave behind.

The ensuing investigation involves myriad tropes of the genre, like snooping around a house and hiding in a closet when the homeowners return, or being tailed by some mystery car. Each of the payoffs might be sidesplitting but Morgan is not simply seeking to send up the genre. No, in the comic reveals he is rendering Abe as something like a pitiable figure, furthered in the parallel revelation of an unexpected blind spot in his sleuthing past, that his ostensible gift might just have been nothing more than innumerable adults patting him on the head. This injects “The Kid Detective” with an unexpected sense of tragedy that fully blooms with the ultimate reveal. And if the surprisingly heavy reveal might be at odds with the low-key whimsy preceding it, that’s the point, Abe crossing the threshold into adulthood and discovering there’s just a meanness in this world.