' ' Cinema Romantico

Friday, September 17, 2021

Friday's Old Fashioned: Thief (1981)

There is a scene in Michael Mann’s “Heat” when bank robber Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro) convinces his lady friend, Eady (Amy Brenneman), to come away with him in spite of the big bank robbery going bust. It’s one of the very few scenes in one of Mann’s myriad magnum opuses that does not quite work, a little too rushed in Neil’s plea despite the moment’s enormity for Eady. You can see an extended cut of this scene, however, not in the “Heat” extras but in Mann’s “Thief” (1981), when the eponymous Frank (James Caan), late for his date with Jessie (Tuesday Weld), drags her to diner despite her reticence given his tardiness. If his dragging her there feels like pathetic male entitlement, it also comes across pitifully endearing, especially once he spills his guts about being in prison and remaking himself into nothing, to use his exact word, in order to survive being in prison. Now he wants to make himself into something more than a career criminal, a desire manifested in a photo collage he places before Jessie, representing his life’s ideals: wife, child, home. The collage is charming, childlike. Frank believes it can come true, which is why his going for broke on a first date does not come across far-fetched but just right, underlined in Caan’s extraordinary verbal delivery, belying his posture, sounding like someone who has both rehearsed a variation of this speech a thousand times and now is still searching for the right words. And unlike Eady, Jessie gets her say, copping to her own scattered, screwed up past, not wanting to take a risk now that she’s on the straight and narrow, epitomizing the upside down nature of Frank’s proposal. In asking for a normal life, he is taking his biggest risk yet. What’s Mann-land? That’s Mann-land.


Of course, processes fascinate Mann just as much as emotional and professional paralysis, and so before we even get to Frank’s diner entreaty, we are taken through his whole operation as a methodical safecracker. Mann views him less as some elegant cat burglar than blue collar, sparks flying as Frank employs a 200 lb magnetic drill to penetrate a gargantuan safe. After succeeding, he raises his welding mask and takes a drag from a cigarette, looking for all the world like a guy after clocking out from his 12-hour factory shift. When the police get wise to his scheme and bring him in for questioning, Mann takes care to portray the cops as on the take, simply looking for a cut of Frank’s action in order to look the other way. Frank scoffs at this, profanely telling these clowns to get a real job, the cops as criminals, the thief as an extorted worker. 

Frank, we learn, was schooled in the art of the steal by Okla (Willie Nelson), who is currently locked away in prison and dying. Frank remains loyal to him, visiting in scenes that are oddly charged despite the pain of glass separating the two men, where the gleam in Nelson’s eyes almost seems to suggest something even beyond fatherly affection. Mann, though, is content to let that linger in the air, the relationship more illustrative of Frank’s devotion to family, untraditional or otherwise. That includes not just Jessie, who in a distorted variation of meeting the in-laws is brought by Frank to see Okla, but Frank partner’s, Barry, played by Jim Belushi with a giant coif and sideburns that remind you the future star of “According to Jim” once had a little Elvis in him. The scene in which Frank and Jessie and their adopted son, Barry and his lady friend, congregate on a beach elevates the idea of family to a kind of Mann-ish myth.


Set to a Tangerine Dream’s aptly named “Beach Theme”, this scene is not almost too good to be true; it is too good to be true. To make enough money to break free from living on the wrong side of the law, Frank agrees to work with Leo (Robert Prosky), a crime boss who does not simply assign Frank profitable scores but deems himself, tellingly, Frank’s “father.” Leo literally purchases Frank and Jessie a son through nefarious black market means when she is unable to conceive, suggesting this notion of family is nothing but an illusion, one constructed by Leo and one Leo warns he will erase when Frank threatens to walk away. Frank walks away anyway, taking matters into his own hands in an operatic conclusion of slow motion violence, exacting vengeance on Leo for crossing him. If it is a Hero’s Moment, it is one rendered tragic, Frank saving his family by sacrificing himself. Not literally, mind you, just symbolically, burning it all down and remaking himself into nothing once again, a fate, it seems to me as he wanders off into the darkness of suburbia all alone, worse than death. 

Thursday, September 16, 2021

In Memoriam: Norm Macdonald

Deducing Norm Macdonald’s ‘best’ joke is, of course, merely a matter of personal taste. I have always been partial to a relatively minor one from his time holding down the Saturday Night Live Weekend Update desk in the mid-90s. After explaining a daily fine of a million dollars was levied against Microsoft for trying to monopolize access to the Internet, Macdonald deadpanned “Analysts say that at this rate, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates will be broke just ten years after the earth crashes into the sun.” There’s a folksy fatalism to his delivery, both for our future and our present (past), that is right in my wheelhouse and at which Macdonald excelled. (“Note to self, ” he counsels his tape recorder in “Dirty Work.” “I don’t want to live.”) But, perhaps the most revealing Macdonald joke was the one you probably saw plastered all over the Interwebs the other day when it was announced, all of a sudden, that Macdonald had died at the age of 61 after an entirely private decade-long battle with cancer that retroactively makes perfect sense given that his autobiography was fiction. That joke, told to Conan O’Brien during his brief run on The Tonight Show, about a moth’s visit to the podiatrist, is not really a joke; it’s a shaggy dog story that takes an eternity in Network TV Time, building to a gleeful groaner of a punchline, leaving Conan hilariously, palpably desperate to just get this over with. Macdonald, though, sets up the joke by explaining it was told to him earlier in the day by his driver. Surely this was not true, but framing it this way emphasized how the joke wasn’t really in the joke itself but in the telling of the joke. To me, that was Macdonald’s gift. 


Macdonald was a remarkable stand-up comic. The best, as David Letterman, whose smart aleck groove was similar to Macdonald’s, proclaimed on Tuesday. “Always up to something, never certain,” Dave Tweeted of Norm, “until his matter-of-fact delivery leveled you.” Matter-of-fact delivery; what a way to say it! If anyone taught me that comedy was as much a matter of tone as material, it was Norm Macdonald. The bit in his 1991 HBO special, “One Night Stand”, about waking up in the middle of a dream - “You ever have a really good dream and then right in the middle of the dream you wake up? And there you are, back in your stinking life again?” - was not especially penetrating in its insight, just in the golly gee willickers, what are you gonna do way he said it.

In telling that Bill Gates joke, and thousands of others, Macdonald would take his voice up a decibel on the punchline and then pause, staring you down, figuratively or literally. Almost every O.J. Simpson joke he told on Weekend Update, the ones that probably got him fired from the same gig, were like that, punchlines as blunt instruments designed to obliterate any Both Sides rejoinders before they could even begin. I remember Bob Newhart once describing a joke as the kind you laughed at in the car on the way home. Macdonald, on the other hand, wasn’t waiting for you to get in the car; he was waiting for your response right now. If you didn’t laugh, he figured he’d done his job just as well as if you had. Letterman did this too, of course, that way he would go back to a joke that didn’t work, again and again, but Macdonald, if he wanted, could build an entire set out of those jokes. 

My favorite Norm, though, was always the storyteller. His numerous appearances on Letterman, in fact, were less interviews than the Norm Macdonald Storytelling Hour, the host setting him up with some ostensibly innocuous question and then giving his guest the floor. My favorite Norm appearance on Letterman, maybe because it was one I happened to watch when it originally aired, was Macdonald recounting his game of Scrabble at a Victoria Island bed and breakfast run by “Old Harold Delaney.” It’s not a joke but it’s not quite a shaggy dog story either; it’s like a long drawn-out skit told to us rather than performed, a 1930s radio bit with a 1990s sensibility. (You can watch it here. Fast-forward to about the 17:00 minute mark.)

Macdonald appeared on that 1998 Letterman episode to promote his new movie, “Dirty Work.” It was not well received critically, currently pulling down 14% on Rotten Tomatoes, as if that means anything. “(M)ore groans than laughs,” goes the pull quote of the L.A. Times’ David Kronke, seeming not to get what the movie’s star is all about in the first place. About Macdonald’s Mitch and Artie Lang’s Sam opening a revenge-for-hire business, “Dirty Work” is not plot-less, per se, but pretty close, more like a series of Norm Macdonald stories strung together by semblance of a plot, every joke made in the image of Macdonald’s ironic aloofness and wry bemusement. At the conclusion, when Mitch is purposely wrecking an opera sponsored by property developer Travis Cole (Christopher McDonald), the movie’s villain, Cole cries “You’re ruining Don Giovanni!” “Don Givoanni?” Mitch asks, the tenor of Macdonald’s voice essentially breaking the fourth wall without him having to look at the camera. “Who’s that dude?” “The opera!” Cole clarifies. “You’re ruining the opera!” “Oh, the opera. Yes,” Mitch confirms, as McDonald suddenly seems to remember now that, yes, he’s in a movie. “Yes, we are ruining that.” The mock confirmation in Macdonald’s voice there, it slays me.

 

The high point of “Dirty Work” is kind of a shaggy dog story through the looking glass the other way. Mitch and Sam hide dead fish all over a drug dealer’s McMansion to exact revenge in the name of a fed-up neighbor. In the middle of their mischievous act, however, the homeowners return, picking up the scent of the rotting fish which causes their current drug deal to suddenly combust yielding an explosion of violence. Crucially, the movie never cuts to what’s happening in the other room; we just listen, as the savagery and death absurdly escalates. It’s basically a visual manifestation of one of Norm’s rambling stories, just told by the voices in the other room, cosmically transforming Norm into Conan during the Moth Joke, listening in abject horror, waiting for the whole thing to be over. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Preexisting Movies as Elvis Movies Starring Madonna


Normally I try to avoid so much as even half-glancing at those links at the bottom of web articles, the obvious clickbait ones decreeing faux-alluring schadenfreude malarkey like Why Jennie Garth Isn’t Welcome In Hollywood Anymore, because just to see them, even for a split-second, makes me feel scuzzy. But. The other day, at the end of some article I can’t remember, as I tried to avert my eyes while clicking away, my eyes could not help but scan the words Madonna and the phrase Elvis Movie at the bottom of the screen. Like Pimento Cheese and Arugula trigger me on food menus, so do the words Madonna and Elvis Movies. So, Lauren Bacall help me, I clicked. Turns out it was about Debra Winger explaining she turned down Penny Marshall’s “A League of Their Own” because Madonna’s presence rendered it a would-be Elvis movie rather than a thoughtful examination of a worthy topic. Whether “A League of Their Own” really wasn’t at least partially thoughtful, however, is not the point of this post. Because, while I respect Winger and admire her for having principles in an industry where there are few, when I read what she had to say, my mind could not help but drift...drift to other movies that might have benefited from Elvis-ish Madonna star vehicles. 


The Flamingo Kid. I mean, “The Flamingo Kid” should have been a musical in the first place. So, exchange Janet Jones for Madonna, write some 1960s pop songs with an 80s bent, and you’re not looking at me, kids, all like “there was a movie called ‘The Flamingo Kid?’”


Quicksilver. The epic bicycle messenger movie could have become the “Footloose” for the streets of San Francisco, or something. Alas. 


The Secret of My Success. You switch out Helen Slater for Madonna and you reimagine this as a go-go Reagan Era “How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.” Can we replay the 80s?


Reindeer Games. Come on, the name of the movie is culled from a song. Who wants a crime thriller when you can have a comic musical caper? Replace Charlize with Madonna, Ben Affleck with Hugh Jackman, Gary Sinise with Enrique Iglesias, Rob Marshall for John Frankenheimer, and boom! You’ve got “Bad Santa” for theatre kids. 


Waterworld. Dryland is so predictable. Ditch that plot device and instead center the action on a Thunderdome-like floating tiki bar lorded over by Madonna. And though everyone probably still remembers it as a flop, it costs a lot less and becomes a cult classic among the “Elvira: Mistress of the Dark” crowd.


Out to Sea. It just sounds like a dumb, wonderful Elvis movie: two friends posing as dance instructors on a cruise ship. It could have been the nominal sequel to “Viva Las Vegas” with Elvis and Cesare Danova as the dance instructors and Ann-Margret as the woman who comes between them. So, in our time machine back to 1997, we will ditch Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau and Dyan Cannon (no disrespect) for Kevin Kline and Val Kilmer and Madge. Who says no? [20th Century Fox hangs up.]


Keeping the Faith. This forgotten comedy, in which a woman comes between a Priest and a Rabbi, sounds like a dumb, wonderful Elvis movie too, but with the added bonus that it would have allowed for Madonna to simultaneously defame some Catholic iconography. We’ll bump it up from PG-13 to NC-17.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Some Drivel On...Space Cowboys

The worst part of “Space Cowboys” is the beginning. Oh, not so much the 1958-set black & white sequence itself, in which two antagonistic best friends and Air Force pilots, Frank Corvin and Hawk Hawkins, reach the precipice of space in an X-plane before plummeting back to Earth. No, it’s that Eastwood, doubling as director, has chosen to dub the voices of these young actors with his voice and the voice of Tommy Lee Jones since they assume the roles in the present-day scenes. Continuity, schmontinuity (sic); it sounds odd and looks odd and feels odd. Then again in its own weird way, this aesthetic decision epitomizes the movie’s meditation on aging, reminding us that even these young bucks will one day grow up to sound like a coupla gravelly geezers. Eastwood, after all, would have been 70 when “Space Cowboys” was released and he must have seen the screenplay by Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner as an opportunity to wrestle with getting old on his own terms, a geriatric “Right Stuff” in which the test pilot rogues of yesteryear approach one’s dotage with their determination to get in the ring intact. Indeed, though the retired Eastwood version of Frank Corvin is introduced in something of a “Home Improvement” outtake, struggling with an automatic garage door opener, this also provides an avenue to fooling around with his wife (Barbara Babcock) in the dark. In other words, the old guy’s still got it.


The monochrome prologue concludes with Frank and Hawk and their NASA compatriots Jerry and Tank (Donald Sutherland and James Garner, respectively, in the present-day scenes), having their dreams of going into space denied when bureaucratic boss Bob Gerson (James Cromwell in the present-day scenes) replaces them with monkeys. So, when the elderly Gerson calls on the elderly Frank to see what can be done about a failing guidance system of the latter’s design in an old Soviet communications satellite, on the verge of crashing back to Earth, the retired Frank is gift-wrapped a chance to get even. And that is just what he does, not so much negotiating with Gerson as blackmailing him into allowing his original team, attendant impaired vision and medical issues and all, to blast off into space and fix the satellite. This iconoclastic tendency infuses the standard-issue training scenes at NASA, in which the youthful astronauts show their feathers to this over-the-hill quartet and vice-versa, with a little unexpected juice, going to show how heroism and hotdogging so often go hand-in-hand. 

That is not to suggest the standard-issue training scenes sink. To the contrary, they also get by on the bountiful charms of Eastwood’s co-stars. Sutherland might be playing nothing more than a variation of the horny old coot, but he manages to transcend the stereotype by imbuing it with a poet’s soul, evinced in his well-timed joke in a scene on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Garner gets the least to do but makes it count anyway, like a scene in which he acts as Hawk’s spotter on a bench press, humorously sending up so much macho vainglory. Even Loren Dean succeeds as the younger straight man, his perfect coif and tight-lipped visage serving as the perfect counterpoint to Eastwood’s squint and “put a sock in it, sonny” countenance. No one, though, is better than Jones. 

If the actor has hardened into an unamused meme in the minds of so many, “Space Cowboys” is just one more pleasant reminder of his roaring liveliness, like if Sam Shephard’s Chuck Yeager had morphed into Jones’s Marshal Sam Gerard. Hawk even gets the foremost character complication, a pancreatic cancer reveal midway through, which Jones has Hawk carry with this impeccable kind of bemused dignity, no-big-deal on the surface but letting the fear and sadness peek through too. He also falls in love with NASA engineer Sara Holland (Marcia Gay Harden), who could have simply been a throwaway character, there to further shine a light on Hawk’s tragic diagnosis. Instead, Gay Harden makes Sara count, taking the scene where her character simply sits and watches the four burgeoning spacemen on The Tonight Show and effuses this contagious joy. The best scene in a movie about going to space might just be the one that is nothing more than Hawk and Sara sit together while gazing upon downtown Houston at night. Drinking beers while perched on the hood of a car evokes the sensation of Being Young Again, true, but their remarkably relaxing romantic chemistry befits two older people who are less insecure and tolerant of romantic b.s. 


If the first half of “Space Cowboys” is more of a comedy, the back half transitions into something more like drama, though Eastwood is careful to end not so much on a note of suspense or even triumph as wonder. The twist, that the communications satellite is no ordinary communications satellite but a nuclear silo in space, might merely have been a way to revive America’s long since dormant Cold War rival as the chief onscreen villain. “Space Cowboys”, though, despite its oft-modest vibe, aims higher, its conclusion spiritually connecting with the unforgettable culmination of Philip Kaufman’s “The Right Stuff.” Granted, Eastwood is not as lyrical a filmmaker as Kaufman and the final scenes of “Space Cowboys” do not reach the figuratively otherworldly heights as Kaufman’s 1983 opus. But Eastwood manages his own kind of functional poetry nonetheless. “The Right Stuff” ended by juxtaposing Chuck Yeager’s individual bravado in the form of an unauthorized test flight with the teamwork of the Mercury astronauts being feted by a massive audience while “Space Cowboys” ends with Hawk strapping himself to the satellite, firing the missiles’ engines, and rocketing away from Earth and into the black of space. He might be taking one for the team to save the whole world, but this valorous act is also portrayed as a wry and wonderful variation of his personalized moonshot, an aging (dying) NASA cowboy going for one last wild ride. 

Monday, September 13, 2021

Riders of Justice

After the unexpected death of Emma (Anne Birgitte Lind), a grief counselor tells both her daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) and husband Marcus (Mads Mikkelsen) to expect that neither of them will grieve quite the same way. After all, grief, goes the saying, takes many forms. Yet so many movies exploring this topic tend to ignore that universally accepted maxim, distilling their versions of grieving down to a single genre, comedy or drama, or action or thriller. Anders Thomas Jensen’s Danish sorta-epic “Riders of Justice” is not your normal movie, both in terms of quality and content. Absurd and sad, funny and violent, it encompasses every tone in the rainbow. How often can a reviewer compare a movie to both every Liam Neeson revenge thriller ever made and Peter Chelsom’s forgotten 2003 destiny-obsessed rom com “Serendipity.”


“Riders of Justice” begins with Mathilde’s bike being stolen, commencing a series of quick scenes that concludes when the train Mathilde is taking with her mother crashes into another train, killing the latter. The way Jensen and his co-editors Anders Albjerg Kristiansen and Nicolaj Monbergcompose this sequence, several seemingly isolated events like another girl wanting a bike similar to Mathilde’s and a man on the train, Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), giving his seat to Emma just before the crash, create the impression that they are not random but cosmically strung together. Destiny. This is further epitomized in Otto’s line of work, seen giving a presentation where he argues that coincidences are always the work of something larger, merely lacking sufficient data to prove it. The crash gives him his chance for proof, seeking out Mathilde’s father to pitch his theory that some strange men he saw on the train connect to a larger conspiracy.

Marcus is a soldier, stationed in Afghanistan as the movie opens, but summoned home after his wife’s death to care for his daughter. That does not go well. Though his character is closed off and detached, Jensen is smart enough not to distill Marcus’s psychology simply down to the empty beer cans surrounding him. No, the military man is an atheist, undoubtedly culled from his time on the battlefield, and when Mathilde asks him about the afterlife, he casually and cruelly explains that when someone’s gone, they’re gone. Mikkelsen’s intense dispassion in these moments comes across like some spiritually deficient metallic surface his daughter’s palpable desperation for connection just bounces right off. And though he doesn’t necessarily mean it that way, Marcus seems to argue for a meaningless in this world, one that sends his own daughter grappling for any kind of meaning at all, eventually devising a flowchart on her bedroom wall to try and formulate her own conspiracy theory.  

Otto pinpoints the possible perpetrators as the Riders of Justice motorcycle gang, seeking to eliminate a witness from testifying against them. This is both a red herring and revealing in so much as the real Riders of Justice of “Riders of Justice” becomes Marcus and his motley crew, including not just Otto but Otto’s colleague Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and their portly hacker friend Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro). Though they band together to hunt down and kill the perpetrators, it is mostly Marcus doing the killing. These scenes are furious bursts of violence though it is not, refreshingly, graphic violence for graphic violence’s sake but an illustration of how here, on a twisted version of the battlefield, with an avowed enemy, Marcus excels, the cold-blooded efficiency of his warpath juxtaposed against the mess of things in his homelife.

The men scheme their retribution in the cavernous barn on Marcus’s property, prompting questions from Mathilde about just what’s going on. Therapy, her father says. It is a lie providing his daughter false hope, though what makes “Riders of Justice” truly great is how it stretches narrative notes like this one. Mathilde wants to have a therapy session too, causing Lennart, emboldened by his own 4,000 hours of therapy, to slip into the part of analyst. This has all the makings of a classic comedy scene, especially given Brygmann’s wonky deportment, but once the scene gets rolling, it evokes the blissful tendency of “Riders of Justice” to always zig. Just as “Riders of Justice” always takes Mathilde seriously as a character, rather than merely a reflective character of her father, it takes this scene seriously too, allowing for a genuine back and forth between Mathilde and her pretend therapist that yields something like genuine progress. 

This sequence also illuminates “Riders of Justice” as being a therapeutic process unto itself, this unlikely band of misfits not necessarily working out but working through their issues. The portly Emmenthaler, an overgrown child whose self-loathing is frightfully, funnily brought straight to the surface by Bro, would seem to have nothing in common with the muscular, macho Marcus. But when the nouveau Riders of Justice go into the woods for arms training, Emmenthaler demonstrates himself as adept with a weapon as Marcus, suggesting they are not so different, until the moment of truth when he can’t pull the trigger. That Emmenthaler falls completely apart, then, only underscores how close Marcus himself likely is to falling apart too, men hanging on my virtual threads. 


There’s a shot near the end, looking up at Markus as he kneels in his barn, making it seem for all the world like he’s kneeling at a pew, his hands briefly threatening to fold in prayer only to clench his fists instead, emblemizing the whole balance this film rests on, in trying to find comfort or dispensing with it for vengeance instead. In the end, though, “Riders of Justice” does not exactly give us either. A late movie moment in which the rug gets pulled not so much out from under us as them undermines the notion that everything happens for a reason and leaves the characters floating in a kind of virtual ether, unmoored from their sense of putting things right. That might make it appear odd when the movie still climaxes with a thunderous discharging of arms and frames its motley crew as heroes. Jensen, though, brilliantly wants us to give us the traditional ending in order to go right past it, to another ending, a little weird, a little funny, a little uncomfortable, suggesting that there is still emotional work to do. 

Friday, September 10, 2021

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Hit (1984)

“The Hit” (1984), like most road movies, is in no particular hurry. But then, this isn’t a movie about a estranged friends from high school road-tripping to their reunion, or a weary person driving west in America to reinvigorate his or her soul. “The Hit”, as the title implies, is about two hitmen, Braddock (John Hurt) and Myron (Tim Roth) transporting a one-time London gangster, Willie Parker (Terrence Stamp), from his Spanish hideout to Paris where his imminent execution awaits. Along the way, circumstances force the two hitmen to take an additional prisoner, Maggie (Laura del Sol), who will do anything to survive. Yet director Stephen Frears never really exploits this inherent tension, opting for a chilled out, contemplative vibe, evoked in the flamenco score by Paco de Lucia, weirdly if wonderfully rendering an ostensibly suspenseful situation as more of an eerily mystical one. When the Spanish youths dispatched by Braddock to get Parker corner the gangster on his Spanish villa’s roof, it is not so much Ebert’s Climbing Killer Syndrome come to life as it is Parker deliberately taking a moment for one last look.


The movie opens in the past, with Parker testifying against his criminal cohorts in court, who serenade him – “Until we meet again” – as they are led out of the courtroom. If it demonstrates “The Hit’s” macabre humor, it also lets Parker know he’s a marked man, no matter what, and as we glean in the ensuing car ride across the ever-changing European landscape, he did not spend those years frittering away his time but philosophically preparing himself for just moment. True, he quotes John Donne, but Stamp’s indelibly pacific air embodies his character’s enlightenment all on its own, his big, piercing white eyes balanced against that epic canvas of his face, looking like a man who has seen things you people wouldn’t believe.

Parker needles Braddock and Myron, sort of pitting them against one another, putting ideas in their heads, or at least in the youthful Myron’s, even if sometimes Myron comes across perplexed by his charge’s pontifications, brought to hysterical life in Roth’s slack-jawed expressions. This suggests Parker as a drier, more, well, British version of Charles Grodin in “Midnight Run.” At the same time, though, Parker does not necessarily come across desperate to escape. In one sequence, when Braddock leaves Myron in charge, the kid falls asleep, providing a perfect avenue for Parker to flee. Instead, Braddock finds Parker admiring a waterfall where the way Hurt points his gun at Parker seems born more out of palpable confusion, like Parker has ascended to some metaphysical plain these puny bullets will never reach. And Parker’s stillness is contrasted against the desperation of Maggie. She is the Spanish girlfriend of an Australian man, Harry (Bill Hunter), who are occupying an apartment Braddock mistakenly believes empty. Braddock offs the man but takes Maggie prisoner as del Sol gives a virtually silent, animalistic performance, as if gnawing through her own leg to escape a trap.

If Myron begins as an obedient underling to Braddock, he sympathizes with Maggie as the movie goes along, only too willing to be prodded in that direction by Parker, going whatever way the wind in his ear advises. A sequence in which Myron attacks some Spaniards harassing him at a roadside bar isn’t just “The Hit” killing time, it is evocative of how “The Hit” uses seeming throwaway scenes to reveal character, Myron’s innate youthful recklessness finally burbling to the top. The way Roth happily slumps in the backseat after making off with a few free beers suggests this is the moment when Myron is most himself. Hurt, on the other hand, keeps Braddock a closed book, nigh impossible to read. He’s all too willing to shoot an innocent gas station attendant when it becomes necessary, yet never does the same to Maggie even as it becomes pointless to keep her alive, Hurt’s lips curling into a mischievous grin as the two eye each other, the close-ups between Hurt and del Sol portray an emotional game of cat and mouse entirely independent of the others, almost like to him it’s some sort of game. 


Before Braddock kills Harry, he allows the Australian man a moment of peace, watching his favorite soccer team on the tube. If it imbues both the scene and Braddock with a surprising humanity, it also foreshadows “The Hit’s” denouement, in which Frears proves less interested in some traditional big narrative twist than finally, once and for all, seeing how these men react to death when it is truly staring them in the face. For Parker, his preternatural calm falls by the wayside when all of a sudden Braddock announces that Parker’s time is up. “That’s not the job,” Parker says, Stamp’s voice shading from indignation into desperation. “The job ends in Paris.” It is gut-wrenching and gut-wrenchingly comical to watch, the mask of stoicism ripped away, suggesting that no matter how ready we might presume ourselves to be, we never ever are. Then again, Braddock’s death seems to suggest something else. Frustratingly, it’s the sole moment in the whole movie when Frears lays his aesthetic on too thick, cuing up one of Parker’s earlier musings in voiceover to tell us Braddock’s eyes closing already do, that maybe death, even for a baaaaaaad man such as this, is nothing more than a flame extinguishing forevermore. 

Thursday, September 09, 2021

10 Not-at-TIFF Movies to Watch

The Academy Awards, the it-goes-without-saying finishing line of movie awards season, were only four months ago and now, today, the 47th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), generally viewed as the starting line for movie awards season, kicks off. It is nothing if not evocative of how time has become virtually nebulous in the last year-and-a-half, seeming to both stand still, as if awards season never began and never ended, and moved at warp speed. It is why even with some measure of progress in the battle against the Pandemic, I feel even more disillusioned with the state of the world and exhausted than I did last year. And even if TIFF is, like the recent Telluride and Venice Film Festivals, requiring proof of vaccination, suggesting a film festival as a carrot stick, reports of breakthrough COVID cases at Telluride nonetheless just go to show that everything is not Back to Normal. And that is why even if, as the artistic director, director of programming, and chief financial officer (budget: 0$) of Not-at-TIFF, our annual alternate TIFF program for those unable to make the trek to Toronto, I had hoped to curate a more festive slate than last year’s, reality intervened. This is simply our world now. Live in it. 

10 Not-at-TIFF Movies to Watch


A Time to Kill. We will kick off Not-at-TIFF with a 25th anniversary screening of the late Joel Shumacher’s gothic sweat-soaked pseudo-masterpiece. Seriously, where are all the commemorative think pieces about this one? [Taps pencil against lips.] Hmmmmmmm.


Quiz Show. Given the Jeopardy scandal, it’s time to go back to the sordid game show roots. 


Zero Dark Thirty. This screening will include my lecture about how the CIA’s involvement in filming does not negate the movie’s ultimate framing of the fabled War on Terror as a road to nowhere.


A Life Less Ordinary. A few weeks back there was tension in the Film Twitter universe when somebody asked for people’s green flag films as opposed to their red flag films which, rather than prompting people to simply cite a movie they liked yielded a social media ethics and morals debate about red flag films because, again, everything is awful. Anyway. A green flag film for me is “A Life Less Ordinary” because if you, too, theoretical person, can groove on that ostensible bomb’s vibes than undoubtedly we could have a few beers together. (A red flag film? Hmmmmm. Probably “Another Stakeout.” I mean, if you think “Another Stakeout” deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as “Stakeout”…) 


Quantum Hoops. The recent Bishop Sycamore scandal is the only latest example of America’s unique predilection for marrying academics and sports utterly backfiring. So, let’s screen this 2007 documentary of the woebegone Caltech Basketball Team’s quest to end a 21-year streak of literally never winning a game. 


Chasing Waterfalls. I have had this Hallmark movie, which is literally about chasing mythical waterfalls and not an ode to T-Boz, Chilli, and the immortal Left Eye, saved on my DVR since March. And so now Not-at-TIFF will subject you all to it. I wonder if they can send me a 35mm print?


And then on the 7th day we will just watch Rolling Stones videos to mourn the titanic loss of Charlie Watts.


The Ice Pirates. As the American West remains mired in a megadrought, inching us ever closer to a frightfully dry future, the go-to reference for fatalists will become “Mad Max: Fury Road” of course. But let us not forget that the forgotten “Ice Pirates” saw all this clear as day back in 1984. Better start searching for that mystical Seventh World now.   


Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Need to re-watch the source material for “The Green Knight” before I write my review. 


Melancholia. Someone, I forget who, my apologies, near the beginning of the Pandemic (that is not over) said something like, welp, now you find out if you’re Charlotte Gainsbourg in “Melancholia” or Kirsten Dunst. And I guess it should come as no surprise, Kiki stan as I am, that it turns out I’m Kirsten Dunst. I am totally Kirsten Dunst. The Earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it.