' ' Cinema Romantico

Monday, March 30, 2020

Spenser Confidential

The mononymous Spenser (Mark Wahlberg) of Robert B. Parker’s novels which begat a 1980s TV show that begat a series of made-for-TV movies begins Peter Berg’s Netflix movie as an ex-cop behind bars for assaulting his Captain, John Boylan (Michael Gaston). Once Spenser is out, a former colleague is found dead in a murder-suicide, suspected of killing the same Captain he went to prison for roughing up. The burgeoning private eye, however, forgoing starting a new life by getting certified as a long-haul trucker, opens his own investigation, promising the slain colleague’s widow he will get to the bottom of the things despite, as he says, having “flaws. A lot of ‘em.” I thought, “Does he?” The “Spenser” script, penned by Brian Helgeland, takes immense care to write off each of Spenser’s questionable tactics as ethically justified. That includes his violent attack of Captain Boylan, seen in frigidly colored flashbacks, inserted amidst present-day plotting that made me fear the Oscar voter who struggled so terribly to follow “Little Women’s” time jumps must have struggled to follow “Spenser Confidential” too, where Boylan is seen physically abusing his wife. And though Spenser’s ex-girlfriend Cissy (Iliza Shlesinger) seems to abhor him and want nothing to do with him, she also explicitly seeks him out for a bathroom tryst, a scene suggesting Spenser gets to have his cake and eat it too. Flaws? Lots of ‘em? Nah, he seems like the consummate Man®.

The plot itself involves corruption with the police force, beginning with the Captain and then trickling down to Spenser’s ostensible friend, Detective Driscoll (Bokeem Woodbine). Woodbine evinces portent simply in his grin, not to mention the way he twiddles a toothpick between his teeth, a narrative plant that will give him away. That toothpick, though, is emblematic of the uncomplicated and unimaginative investigative dots, like when Spenser emerges from a building just as the suspicious yellow corvette he’s been seeking happens to drive by. What’s more successful, if not amusing, even fascinating, is Wayne Cosgrove, a muckraking investigative journalist working on the sly with Spenser to expose the crooked cops. Wayne is played by Marc Maron with his patented weary, kind of “C’mon, man” air as someone whose job has been so maddeningly redefined by – quote-unquote – Fake News that even when he finds himself face to face with a whole van pull of contraband he still wavers on whether it’s enough evidence to convince all the indoctrinated idiots.

This pro-press argument belies Peter Berg’s real-life left leaning politics, which are often at odds with his conservative feeling films. (Then again, one of the two federal agents Spenser pseudo works with is basically right out of central high school nerd casting.) What’s also at odds with Berg’s typical m.o. is the aesthetic. Normally reliant on the shaky cam school of cinema to inject nominal grit, Berg reigns in his camera’s movement, relying on cleaner edits. Cleaner edits in quieter scenes of characters conversing, yes, but even in many of the action set pieces. When Spenser and his Magical MMA Negro roommate Hawk (Winston Duke) send a truck careening off a freeway by hurling a sledgehammer through its windshield from the overpass, Berg simply shows the two men walk from one side of the bridge to the other, switching to a shot over their shoulder to see the truck wide up in the ditch, comically downplaying rather than wildly turning the moment up. Other scenes have a similar wry tone, whether it’s Spenser confronting toughs in prison and or a gaggle of angry cops in a bar, each one scored to classic rock, rendering it more as Spenser having run than being truly imperiled.

The conclusion, alas, deviates from that kind of fun, aside from one prolonged payoff tying back to Spenser’s ostensible long-haul trucking dreams. Otherwise, the Big Shootout isn’t much, settled so effortlessly, in fact, that Spenser winds up with the preeminent baddie in custody quicker than you’d expect. Then again, once he has him cowed, he lets him go, in a manner of speaking, imploring that they go mano-a-mano in a mixed martial arts showdown. It’s pretty stupid but also, its own way, the funniest and most revealing thing in the movie, temporarily stopping himself from saving the day to prove he’s a man.

Friday, March 27, 2020

At the End of the Day: A Football Rom Com

Sports, I think we have discovered over the last few weeks do not practically matter, unless you want see them through an economic prism, which maybe we should, though maybe that’s why first-year college football coaches should be paid as much as an adjunct professor. But if sports do not practically matter, I think we have also discovered that sports philosophically matter, which is why in this sudden period of sports stoppage everyone freaked out when NFL superstar quarterback Tom Brady left his seemingly forever team, the New England Patriots, to sign with the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Suddenly there were sports to discuss! I’ve barely even watched the NFL for three years, but I listened to the ESPN Daily podcast to hear the invaluable Mina Kimes talk to Seth Wickersham about the Brady move because, well, sports! I’m glad I did. Because during their conversation, Wickersham mentioned the “seeds planted for this breakup” between Brady and infamous Patriots Coach Bill Belichick and OH MY GOD STOP THE TAPE.

Breakup? I could not stop imagining Brady & Belichick in a gridiron-styled romantic comedy, “At the End of the Day”, in which a player and a coach fall in love, fall out love, and then, in a twist unlike the real story, fall in love all over again.

ACT I. At a pre-NFL draft interview, every question Mitch Maatkamp (Tommy Lee Jones), grizzled veteran coach of the Philadelphia Taxpayers, asks prospective quarterbacks knotty questions, demanding honesty, though his youthful charges don’t recognize this demand as a cunning test. At least, none of them recognize it except Henry Friedline (Jake Gyllenhaal), lightly regarded quarterback from Michigan State. Every question Mitch asks, Henry replies with a classic banality, especially At the End of the Day, as in, “At the end of the day, I just want to win football games.” Smiling, Mitch writes DRAFT in his notebook and underlines it three times.

Flash head to the Philadelphia Taxpayers winning their third Super Bowl with Henry at the helm. Afterwards, as confetti falls and Henry clutches the Super Bowl MVP trophy, he is asked what this means. “You know,” Henry says, “at the end of the day, it’s all about winning football games. And that’s what this was, just another game we won. And I can’t wait to get back into the film room, watch some tape, and start getting ready for a first preseason game next year.” Off to the side, Mitch wipes away a tear. We cut to QB and Coach in a windowless room, wearing Super Bowl champion hats still sporting the price tag and toasting bottles of Budweiser, watching game tape.

“A few years later” the Taxpayers have fallen on hard times. They are 5-5 and Henry is set to be a free agent at year’s end. He has begun wearing beatnik chic designer clothes; he complains to the media about not enough “flash and dash” in the game plan; he has established himself as an entrepreneur, in business with his new life coach and body technician and business partner, Sam Lovelace (Danny McBride). After another loss, when Mitch approaches his quarterback about watching some game tape, Sam Lovelace intervenes, leading Henry emblematically off toward the lights.

ACT II. One day Mitch passes by the third string quarterback, a rookie from Brigham Young, Zach Maribel (Colin Jost), offering banalities to a reporter. “At the end of the day,” Zach says, “I just want to do whatever it takes to help this team win.” Mitch walks over and invites Zach to watch some tape.

Henry, meanwhile, begins to feel weak, perhaps tying back to the antimatter diet espoused by Sam Lovelace, and struggles to break down opposing defenses, possibly a byproduct of Sam Lovelace’s idea that studying game tape should be eschewed for aromatherapy inducing the game plan. Henry’s wacky best friend wife (Jessica Biel) implores him to break up with Sam Lovelace.

At the end of the last game of the season, which they finish a paltry 7-9, Henry, getting dressed at his locker, is approached by the General Manager, asking the quarterback if he plans to resign with the Showboats or become a free agent. “We’ll see,” Henry shrugs as Sam Lovelace walks up, shrouding his business partner in a camel-colored cape. As the two mean leave, they pass the windowless film room, where Henry momentarily stops, seeing Mitch and Zach watching tape together.

ACT III. Henry arrives in St. Petersburg, Florida to interview with the General Manager of the Scalawags, Mike Slipovitch (Michael Rapaport). Oddly, Slipovitch is wearing a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops and drinking a Sea Breeze. He offers Henry a cocktail too. Henry declines, citing his diet restricting him to Alkaline Water. When Slipovitch shows Henry the film room, Henry is stunned to see it’s less a film room than a solarium, with windows everywhere. “We don’t believe that winning is the only thing,” Slipovitch says as he sips his Sea Breeze. Henry gets a pained expression.

Back at the Philadelphia practice facility, in their windowless film room, Mitch asks Zach to diagnose a certain team’s pass coverage. “It is what it is,” Zach says. Confused, Mitch says, “But what is the pass coverage?” “You know,” Zach shrugs, “I just take each coverage one throw at a time.” Mitch gets a pained expression.

As the midnight deadline to free agency looms, Henry arrives back at the Philadelphia airport, thirty minutes to midnight, to find Sam Lovelace waiting with an army tank. “It’s your new ride!” he says. Henry shakes his head and catches a cab instead. “I thought football people loved military cosplay!” Sam shouts as the cab peels away. At the team facilities, Henry finds Mitch, drops his duffel on the floor, ditches his cape, and declares “At the end of the day, I just wanna be a Taxpayer.” They embrace.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Ruminating on My Favorite PG-13 F-Bombs

My childhood Lutheran pastor swore once in front of our confirmation class. It was not because he was mad at us, and it was not because he, like, tripped on a communion wafer, or something, and expressed foul-mouthed aggravation. No, he was proving a point, not unlike the one Q-Tip rapped in “Buggin’ Out”, from “The Low End Theory”, which was my personal Four Gospels rolled into one: “Occasionally I curse to get my point across.” That always stuck with me. A well-timed profanity is more impactful than a string of expletives, unless, maybe, we’re talking about Carrie-Ann Moss in “Memento” or Steve Martin in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”, though that’s a post for another time. No, I think of the climactic moment on Rilo Kiley’s “Spectacular Views” when, suddenly, Jenny Lewis unleashes that “It’s so fucking beautiful”, her voice cracking on the F-bomb, making it feel like the walls are metaphorically tumbling down all around you, leaving nothing but an awe-inspiring natural vista stretching out to eternity. That right there is what a well-timed F-bomb can do. And because movies rated PG-13 are essentially limited to a single F-bomb, if they choose to use one at all, it forces them to be more creative in their deployment of it than an R-rated movie that can drop all the livelong day. They have to make their F-bombs count.

This is why I cherished Matt Singer’s post over at ScreenCrush last Friday a couple Fridays ago before the world ended about The Greatest F-Bombs in PG-13 Movie History. You can sometimes still find members of the Film Twitter Cognoscenti, the ones who purport to despise gatekeeping even as they mind the gates between Scholars and wastoids, dweebies & dickheads, lament innocent listicles on an Internet that is rarely run anymore because it has been stripped of its wild innocence. For shame. We here at Cinema Romantico still love listicles, so long as they are spruced up and really, like, fucking unique, you know? Like Singer’s, in fact, which is so good we are jealous we did not think of it first. So while we give Singer all due credit, and pointedly link to his list right here a second time, we would be remiss if we did not weigh in, not as a commenter asking What About [insert movie name here], because Singer’s list is Singer’s list, but, well, more in the spirit of “High Fidelity”, a list for a list. Consider this my Barry Judd off-the-cuff rejoinder to Singer’s Rob Gordon.

Singer’s #1 in fact, taken from 2011’s “X-Men: First Class”, is one I am not judged to dissect because I have not seen it. He includes the F-Bomb from the Catholic Priest in “Million Dollar Baby”, one of this blog’s favorite movies, though that would not make my list. Singer’s #5, however, in which Tom Hanks, of all people, dropped an f-bomb in “Catch Me If You Can” would make my list because, hey, that was the Hanks equivalent of when Henry Fonda appeared from the underbrush as the bad guy in “Once Upon a Time in the West.”

Singer’s #2, quoting “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”, would make my list too. And while I have thoughts, well, Will Ashton (@thewillofash) summarized them for me. He tweets: “I'm sure I've said it before, but Anchorman's F-bomb drop is not only a funny, punchy joke, but it also progresses the plot and it leads to the main character's redemption. A really practical and clever use of your one allotted f-word.”

“The Naked Gun 2 ½” would make my list, throwing out its lone F-bomb right away, when Zsa Zsa Gábor concludes the police siren POV opening credits by emerging from a car to slap the siren silent, both parodying herself and forcefully pushing past the point of self-parody, declaring, in that immortal accent, “this happens every fucking time I go shopping.” Who else needs to swear after that?

Obviously the F-bomb in “Adventures in Babysitting” would make my list. What is this, amateur hour? It’s not so much the F-bomb’s shock and awe – “Don’t fuck with the babysitter” – as it is honoring Elisabeth Shue earning her stripes as a legit fucking 80s action hero.

And while, as stated, Will Ashton is spot-on in his analysis of the depth to “Anchorman’s” F-bomb, I slightly prefer the depth to another F-bomb, one culled from the eternally underappreciated “Bowfinger”, as my #1 PG-13 F-bomb. Because its F-bomb, nobly allocated to Eddie Murphy by writer Steve Martin even though Martin co-starred, is itself a commentary on movie dialogue. In fact, let’s just roll the whole exchange:

Agent: “The script has that moment.” 
Kit Ramsey: “When?” 
Agent: “You say, ‘I enjoyed meeting you, Cliff.’ Then you push the guy right over the cliff.” 
Kit Ramsey: “That’s too much for the audience to have to think about. They have to know that the guy’s name is Cliff, they have to know that he’s on a cliff, and that Cliff and the cliff is the same. It’s too cerebral. We’re trying to make a movie, not a film. You’re supposed to be the agent! You better find me a line like the time I told Tommy Lee Jones ‘Fuck y’all,’ and blew his brains out.”

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Ray of Light (#2)

One of the myriad side effects of necessary stay-at-home orders is cosmetology. How are we supposed to get haircuts?! What will we all look like by the time America’s President, His Imbecility, King Big Brain I, consulting not with experts but the spray-tanned little man inside, opens our country back up for Easter break while a global pandemic keeps raging? Who knows, but here’s hoping that if the Rapture happens to coincide with the Resurrection in a few weeks time, we meet it face to face with hair as strikingly ample and messy as Penélope Cruz in “Volver.”

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Forgotten Great Moments in Movie History

For one year or so in the mid-80s, my family got cable before we ditched it for a decade. (In retrospect, I’m thankful we ditched it.) That brief time we had access to a hundred channels, however, was when John Milius’s Cold War slice of surprisingly grim agitprop, imagining a time when other NATO allies ditched the U.S. rather than vice-versa (sigh), “Red Dawn” was all over HBO. My attention span, understandably, was short in those preadolescent days and so I mostly just watched the first fifteen, twenty minutes whenever it would pop up, setting the idyllic Colorado scene before WWIII starts and school is let out forever. As the streets descend into chaos, a few friends hop into the truck of Jed (Patrick Swayze), the emergent Subcomandante Marcos of Calumet, and hightail it out of town. Before vanishing into the Rockies, however, and gradually forming a small resistance, they stop at a convenience store run by the father one of the kids in the pickup’s bed. The father tells them get inside, gather supplies, which they do, in a frenzy. And though in the ensuing montage you don’t see them grab any packs of Charmin, you hear, in dialogue likely recorded post-production, a character demand “And get some toilet paper. I ain’t using no leaves.”

Because I was a typical preadolescent, numb to the complexities of the Cold War if not framed through an Olympic context, and because I rarely made it all the way to the end of “Red Dawn”, I saw it mostly as adventure story where kids ran away into the mountains to play hero. That’s why it was fun to play-act with friends. A few of us on the block would get together and decide who was Jed and who was Matt and who was Robert and who was Danny and if the two sisters a couple houses over were hanging out with us then we could even have Erica and Toni too. (Nobody ever wanted to be Daryl. Traitor.) And so, we’d all escape Calumet and stop for supplies as we fled, getting make-believe Wheaties and guns and toilet paper.

Red Dawn, brought to you by Wheaties & Capri Sun!
That all came flooding back to me Saturday afternoon when My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife and I took a walk down to CVS ahead of Chicago’s stay-at-home order going into effect to stock up on supplies. My youthful fantasies died off long, long ago, of course, but this wasn’t that; this was being brought face-to-face with a youthful fantasy for real. That’s not in the emotional manual. And I thought of that “Red Dawn” character opining that he didn’t want to use leaves as I made a beeline for the T.P. section and came up dry. We bought some napkins instead. Strange days, these.

Monday, March 23, 2020

An Elephant Sitting Still

Time, as it turned out, was the foremost subject at the movies in 2019. “The Irishman” ran three-and-a-half hours to demonstrate how all the time in the world is still not enough to come to terms with the things we’ve done. The underseen “Colewell”, meanwhile, conveyed how time gets away from us even if we manage to slow it down. And as time passed the characters of “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” by, they still found a way to stop and reverse it, briefly ceasing its inexorable march. Even the tentpoles, explicitly or inadvertently, dealt with time. “Avengers: Endgame” was all about a time heist, so to speak, while “Rise of Skywalker” manifested a never-ending urge to flip the page back after it’s been turned. And that, finally, brings us to “An Elephant Sitting Still.” Lord don’t let the people who thought “The Irishman” was too long see the run time on this one. At three hours and fifty-four minutes, the debut feature film of Hu Bo might seem endless but that, of course, is the point. And even if, as the saying goes, you “get it”, you won’t really “get it” unless you go through it, and feel how Bo expertly, effortlessly, exhaustively, exhaustingly contorts time so that it feels at once never-ending and devoid of all meaning.

I confess, I did not watch “An Elephant Sitting Still” in one setting. I watched it an hour at a time. So I can’t speak to the unceasing 234 minute experience, and perhaps that rules me out of order. But sliding in and out of its unchanging style seemed valuable, like returning again and again to an album that you think this time might work differently but doesn’t. That’s not to imply I disliked “An Elephant Sitting Still.” Far from it. Taking place over 24 hours, the unchanging grim, grey palette makes it feels like days and days rather than just one, as if a day last weeks and months or like weeks and months last a day. The setting is a northern Chinese industrial town, or maybe it’s the end of the world. Indeed, when the teenage Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) pays a visit to his grandmother, her home has no door, just a blanket for a divider, and she’s dead, though the movie plays this much less as shock than a shrug, with Yuchang not changing his dour air one iota and the camera hanging back, as if the grief is far, far away. And when Wei Bu informs a nearby relative of her death, the relative not only hardly seems concerned but angry to have been told at all.

This sense of being closed off from everyone is underscored in the claustrophobic camerawork, which is not merely a series of intense close-ups but a judicious consideration of what is and what is not in the frame. Frequently characters looming in the foreground listen, silently, as characters in the background, fuzzy and out of focus, if not off screen altogether, rendering their their words meaningless to the listener. If characters aren’t listening, they are most likely wandering, which isn’t just an adjective in place of walking but the truth, wandering with no point or purpose, the camera at their backs, suggesting the melancholy air over hovering over their shoulders even as the camera betrays how there is nothing in front of them but more ugly buildings, more grey skies. When Wei Bu comes across an immense train yard, his scream into the distance is virtually swallowed up by the imminent void.

There are not so much stories here as an accumulation of scattered details. Wei Bu’s father, his leg in a cast, out of work, bullies his son, who is bullied at school too, angrily if inadvertently shoving the bully down the stairs, killing him. The school, though, does not intervene, knowing the bully’s family runs the town, leaving the bully’s brother, Yu Cheng (Zhang Yu), to seek vengeance. Wei Bu’s friend Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen) is in a relationship with their school’s Vice Dean, which becomes public and a scandal. Each of these details is hardly seen through in any meaningful way, evoked in how slowly and dispassionately Yu Cheng tends to his task, admitting dislike for his brother, bound by pesky blood, epitomizing the futility of the setting’s institutions, families and the school failing each person, which is what leaves them to wander, untethered from any sense of connection with the community.

It’s a bleak portrait rarely, if at all, tempered by hope. That lack of hope comes through in the characters’ ostensible quest, which isn’t really a quest at all, just a recurring fantasy about a nearby city with an elephant, one who sits all day, they say, unbothered by society. That, frankly, sounds less like a dream than a metaphor for depression, maybe for something worse, which is why the awe-inspiring final shot, when the camera finally sees its characters in long shot, giving us room to breathe, feels like a release in more ways than one.