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Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Land of Steady Habits

Among several Connecticut state nicknames, “The Land of Steady Habits” is, it seems, open to several interpretations, some ironic, some sincere. As the title for her Netflix released film, mirroring the moniker of Ted Thompson’s book on which it is based, director Nicole Holofcener sees these steady habits less as any kind of politics or piety than consequences of suburban stasis – you know, commuting, big box shopping, and self-medicating stemming directly from the first two. It is these habits that Anders Hill (Ben Mendelsohn) both willingly and reluctantly accrues, moving into a condo in upscale suburban Connecticut after leaving his finance job for vague reasons and abandoning his marriage to Helene (Edie Falco) for ridiculous reasons he later articulates with a rueful laugh. Ostensibly he’s suffering a mid-life crisis, though he suffers it, frankly, less than meanders through it, like a guy trying it on for size. Indeed, that’s what Anders seems to be doing in the opening scene set conspicuously inside a Bed, Bath & Beyond, where he stands before several bright white shelves of towels before backing up and turning right as the camera pulls back, leaving him to confront a second, barely different bright white shelf of towels stretching beyond the purview of the camera, like a modern-day Tower of Babel, confusing everyone below.

This sort of suburban ennui is not new to film, of course, but Holofcener refrains from skewering it, evoked in a scene where Anders winds up in bed with Barbara (Connie Britton), a woman he’s sort of started seeing, and notices a self-help book on her nightstand titled Live Your Best Life Today that he can’t help but mock. Upon doing so, however, Barbara, refreshingly allowed self-possession, Holofcener’s female characters always are, she puts him in his place, illustrating how “The Land of Steady Habits” accepts this life languor and attempts to deal with it at face value, turning a potentially smug moment upside down. It also, however, lays bare Ander’s penchant for saying the wrong thing, not out of malice and not out of obliviousness but some sort of nonchalant defeatism that seems to leave him emotionally numb.

This is not to excuse the character, and Mendelsohn does not excuse him, improbably playing the part as if he’s standing outside of himself, seeing his own behavior in real time and just shrugging. When he’s in conversations, he can’t wait to get out of them, brazenly flouting eye contact, even in his first date with Barbara where he sits at the table looking left and right as if in hopes someone else will bail him out of talking. Not that he’d want to talk to that person either. At a Christmas party, in explaining why he retired from his job, he leaves the room even as he’s still talking, not trailing off but just disappearing, pulling the plug even as he’s still going. If moments like this make it hard to believe such an evasive mumble-mouth was ever a Wall Street mover and shaker, one moment shows you the old Anders, where, still paying the mortgage on Helene’s home, he refuses to sell to his ex-wife’s fiancé even though he can no longer afford it. Mendelsohn hones his gaze and his smile virtually sprouts fangs in declining the deal, a convincing show of macho force.

In another movie, this detail might have been the narrative bomb, set to detonate at just the right moment. Instead it gets diffused rather quietly, less about any kind of narrative payoff than an evocation of the way in which all the characters, like Anders walking out on his wife only to keep insinuating his way back into her orbit, are tied to one another whether they like it or not, and often in unique ways. Anders’s son, Preston (Thomas Mann), out of college and struggling to shift into gear for the next stage of his life, is given the cold shoulder by his parents as a means to teach him a lesson only to find help from his mom’s best friend. His mom’s best friend’s son Charlie (Charlie Tahan), meanwhile, gives his parents the cold shoulder, leaning on Anders instead, the two unlikely kindred souls suggesting a slacker version of the relationship of Julia-Louis Dreyfus and Tavi Gevinson from Holofcener’s “Enough Said.”

Both Preston and Charlie exist as reflections of Anders, and in their agreeably dueling drollness, the performances of Mann and Tahan support this very idea, their respective characters meet harsh life complications with something like a shrug. Neither character’s storyline, however, quite comes home. Preston’s drinking problem is more a contrivance, highlighted by his taking a job as liquor deliveryman, which fails to elevate the pointedness of that joke in any meaningful way. Charlie, meanwhile, suffers a grave fate that feels less his own than a catharsis, of sorts, for Anders, brought home in a Christmas Eve dinner where relative to what happened the argument and mini-brawl feel, frankly, pat. So does the epilogue, which tries to both tie a bow on things and leave it open, leaving the movie a little at loggerheads, approximating Anders in a way, backing out of the room and making a clean getaway even as it is still going.

Monday, October 15, 2018


After a hard day logging in The Shadow Mountains of the Mojave, Red (Nicolas Cage) returns to his frontier abode to find his wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) drawing at her easel and proceeds to tell her an Erik Estrada knock knock joke. Indeed, if the soundtrack’s omnipresent synths and the blood red visuals evoking heavy metal album cover art don’t clue you in, this joke is here to tell you the time – it’s 1983. Ah, but don’t presume this is some nostalgia trip. No, if anything, “Mandy”, not so much directed and co-written by Panos Cosmatos as divined by black magic, is an acid trip, even if you haven’t dropped any, evoked in a sequence where Red and Mandy lie in bed discussing their favorite planets. Cosmatos imagines their bedroom as a roofless planetarium where they are bathed in the shifting lights of the cosmos, which Cosmatos eventually cuts to all on its own, reveling in its colorful splendor. And despite the movie’s ensuing repulsive bloodshed, this shot, more than any Pure Flix production ever could, makes you believe, agnostic or not, just for a second, in a Biblical firmament.

This indelible sequence epitomizes the overall pictorial majesty, where Cosmatos intends not just to visually convey the story but blow your mind. Terrifying close encounters flicker in and out like an arthouse haunted house and during a dinnertime conversation between our two lovers Red, both the person and the color, gradually dissolve from the frame, leaving merely Mandy, coated in a chilly blue, underscoring the foreboding nature of her words. Even the pauses between psychedelic palettes are meant to grab your attention, like when the heinous Children of the New Dawn cult is summoning demons with a mystical conch. As they wait, one cult member, evoking Jake Busey’s own cultish fiend in “Contact” (an obscure reference that “Mandy” demands), rolls his automatic car window up and down, up and down, nothing big perhaps but part of the whole everything-is-a-little-weird fabric.

The Children of the New Dawn are lorded over by Jeremiah Sand, played by Linus Roache with hair like Khan and sad-sloped eyes like Jeffrey Tambor in “The Death of Stalin”, a performance that pulls the immaculate trick of being both jaw-droppingly wicked and easily laughed at, and immediately renders Tarantino’s forthcoming Manson movie as no longer required. Sand vaguely references some sort of ascension, but it quickly becomes clear he lords over his charges less with bold promises than some kind of rocket fuel hallucinogen, outlined in a sequence after they have kidnapped Mandy. In an unbroken shot, Sand orates his faux-magisterial motivation, charismatically holding us in the palm of his hand, until it gradually becomes clear he’s totally full of it. Mandy knows it too, which Cosmatos initially communicates to us by the way he has her face metaphysically blend with Sand’s as he speaks, only to have her face vanish again, like he’s trying to acquire her soul and she ain’t having it. Nope, because when he’s finished, she laughs, she laughs at him hard, like the Laker Girls laughing at Kit Ramsey (an obscure reference that “Mandy” demands).

This leads her to death, which leads to Red’s revenge as he works his way through demons and men and women, one by one. The violent retribution evokes innumerable Cage works, but if so many of those other efforts have tonally failed to rise to its leading man’s patented bug-eyed, frenzied level, hanging him out to dry, making him appear comical and dooming him to memes when, in fact, he’s committed to the product more than the movie itself would ever dare to be, Cosmatos crafts a tone to match Cage’s. When Bill Duke makes a cameo in a part that may as well be his “Predator” character in an alternate dimension to explain exactly what’s going on, the operatic busted lip aggravation in Cage’s grimace as he listens harmonizes so precisely with the bananas lyricism of Duke’s words that Cage, for once, looks right at home in his movie rather than a crazed interloper.

Cage’s resplendent mania is what prevents the back half of “Mandy”, a relentless series of death, from becoming, despite oft-painterly innovation, like a chainsaw duet, from devolving into mere revenge porn. It also prevents the movie from straying too far into cynicism. An early moment finds Red at the wheel of his car, listening to Ronald Reagan’s famous Evil Empire speech before switching it off. This is the movie disregarding the values the 40th President claims Americans cherish before proceeding to take those values to the woodshed, not just through Red’s violent avenging and Sand’s repulsive insanity but in “Mandy” eventually mocking its own sense of mysticism. The latter is most gloriously evinced in the haunting conclusion where Red, his face splattered in blood, seems to see Mandy riding in the passenger’s seat of his car, a hallucination turning every Dream Lover movie scene inside-out. If it seems to lay bare the firmament as mere gas and dust, it is nevertheless still so eerily beautiful as to be uplifting.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Life: In 3 Acts

tfw you’re on vacation

tfw your vacation is winding down

tfw vacation is over

Friday, September 28, 2018

An Early Autumn Siesta

Oops! My bad! Apologies, loyal frustrated followers! I mixed up screenshots! This is supposed to be a Going on Vacation post, not a Glowering and Drinking Scotch While America Burns post! But it’s so hard these days to keep a smiley face amidst 2018’s cruel, never-ending civic and political burlesque. Yes, yes, I know, as a lyrical scholar once observed, the fire’s always been burning since the world’s been turning. But damn, you’d think after 4.543 billion years that maybe we would have figured out how to douse the flames a little bit rather than just fan them, which I do not mean as a Flake-ish Call for Civility™but a furious lament at the mind-bending inability (unwillingness) of so many to simply acknowledge what’s right. In such an environment, day-to-day escape, which is so necessary, so valuable, has become so difficult. To get away you must go away. And we will.

We are getting the hell out, of America for a brief respite, and we are getting the hell out of our blogging interface for a little while too. We have been behind on our movie-watching all year, and we plan to catch up, for the most part, to the best of our ability, over the final few months of 2018. But that requires taking time away and getting our mind right. As such, Cinema Romantico will be shuttered for the first half of October to recharge the blogging batteries and gear up for the awards seasons crescendo, as well as the festive Hallmark Christmas Movie season, never mind the culmination to 2018 itself which will no doubt be the most thunderous conclusion of all.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Wife

“The Wife” opens one morning with celebrated author Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) taking a call at his Connecticut home from the Nobel Committee. But before receiving the expected, jubilant news, Joe asks if his wife (Glenn Close) can get on the other extension. She does, and as the Nobel Committee member explains that Joe has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, director Björn Runge cuts back and forth between Joe and Jean, husband and wife, as Joe bursts with false modesty and Joan seems to recede within herself. If these cuts come across pedestrian, they quietly evoke “The Wife’s” emergent question regarding the precise genesis of this literary goldmine, though it is reduced to a puzzle locking overtly into place rather than a peeling back of so many tantalizing psychological layers. They also evoke the movie’s preference for the close-up, usually of Close, whose facial expressions frequently, brilliantly embody so many conflicting emotions that you half-suspect the narrative obviousness stemmed from a fear that the actor’s stellar poker face would leave her character’s motivation a secret for the ages.

I should back up. “The Wife” does not quite begin with Joe getting a phone call from Stockholm. No, it begins with Joe worrying about whether he will get a call from Stockholm and, foreshadowing his gluttonous predilections, eating in bed, for which Joan scolds him. After winning, he and Joan hop up and down on the bed a la little kids before she climbs down and insists they get on with getting ready for a long day of ceremonial congratulations. She is, in other words, his caretaker, looking after him like a mother might look after a child, which Pryce plays straight to, evincing a distracted, irritable air even in his most composed moments, even if he is basically quoting his own performance in “Listen Up Philip.” Joe tramples over everyone, including his son David (Max Irons), a would-be writer who spends the whole movie dolefully trying to get notes on his latest story, less a character than the doleful trigger of a story bomb waiting to explode at just the right moment.

All this suggests a domestic drama, with Joan in the role of long suffering wife, which is not my term but hers, telling Joe in no uncertain terms that she does not want to be thanked in his acceptance speech because she does not want to be viewed as a victim. It’s a cliché, sure, but one that Joan understands, and that the movie does too, deliberately raising it at the beginning to turn it on its head, remonstrating against the myth of the blustery male ego automatically equating to male genius, laying him bare as a vainglorious old white guy in moment when he pitifully trots out a James Joyce line to lure a comely photographer (Karin Franz Körlof).

Rather, however, than confronting this myth head on, the movie comes at it through a mystery, one given rise by an unfortunately named author, Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater). He essentially accosts Joe and Joan on their flight to Stockholm, an exquisite sequence in which, exhibiting the character’s comical disregard for personal space, he cuts the frame in half by pushing in so close to the married couple that he’s right in Joan’s face, prompting her to look anywhere but at him, Close’s scrunched lips practically exuding a “Can you believe this guy?” He is not so much interested in becoming Joe’s biographer, as Joe himself claims, as fishing for secret information on the Nobel winner, all of which will become evident when he takes Joan out for a drink in Stockholm.

Though the eventual blow-out between Joan and Joe is solid, these cocktails between Joan and Bone is the best scene in the movie. If Bone, like David, is merely a device, he nevertheless becomes something more via Slater’s performance, a pitch-perfect piece of casting, wielding his Cheshire grin of a voice and a churlish, raised eyebrow grin to feign empathy as a means to try and get her to admit that she, not Joe, wrote all those lauded books. The camera’s proximity here feels like its own invasion of privacy, trying to get her to cough something up, which she both does and doesn’t, her entire air a revelatory tease as if she takes delight in reeling this preening sucker in and then shutting him down.

The reality of this charge, meanwhile, is gradually laid out in flashbacks several decades earlier, showing how Joan and Joe met, the latter her literature instructor at a college. The movie might have command of the long-suffering wife cliché but has no such self-awareness when characters broach literary criticisms like heavy-handedness, as demonstrated by these flashbacks. They evoke a TV serial, not so much exposition dumps as thematically correlating so neatly to whatever present moment precipitates their recounting that they fail to work on their own dramatic level, just cookie crumbs on our way to a predetermined destination, rendered with such little flair that the supposed love affair between Joan and Joe plays like artifice rather than amour.

Then again, as young Joan, Annie Starke, Close’s daughter, mirrors her mother’s emotional withholding. As labored as these past events are portrayed in answering the central mystery of Who Wrote It?, Why Did She Do It? never feels as cut and dried as you might assume. And Close takes that baton in the present to keep us at arm’s remove, teasing but never confessing, not even at the end, though I’d swear, in the wake of one last big fat deus ex machina, her smile seems to suggest she has been set free.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Shout-Out to the Extra: Ronin Version

Shout-Out to the Extra is a sporadic series in which Cinema Romantico shouts out the extras, the background actors, the bit part players, the almost out of your sight line performers who expertly round out our movies with epic blink & you’ll miss it care.

The third and final car chase featured in John Frankenheimer’s “Ronin” is a ferocious affair in which the pursued and the pursuant zoom through the streets of Paris before eventually speeding against traffic. Frankenheimer toggles between close-ups of the characters’ reactions, point-of-view shots looking through the car windows at incoming traffic, and exterior shots of the cars’ evasive tactics and deft maneuvers. But Frankenheimer does not strictly limit this scene to the two cars in question. No, after the pursed and the pursuant have moved on, Frankenheimer frequently lingers over the damage left in their wake, cars crashing into each other, fireballs kicking up, even a car-carrying trailer getting slammed into and having one of its automobile hauls fly off the truck’s headrack and crash to the ground. There is, in other words, a world outside of “Ronin”, one not really explored, because it shouldn’t be, but glimpsed, felt.

It is also glimpsed in the beginning when most of the movie’s band of professional mercenaries first meet up in a Parisian bistro. Larry is already there, drinking and smoking, and Dierdre, the ringleader, arrives and then masquerades as a bartender, pouring an adult beverage for Vincent, who arrives not long after her. Sam arrives last, evoking his m.o. And so they all stand there, acting like they aren’t who they are, refraining from getting right down to the gritty-gritty because Frankenheimer has purposely placed a few patrons in the bistro that the Ronin are waiting on to clear out. A patron like this one…

If I had hundred and twenty-five thousand preeminent takeaways from my first trip to Paris last year, perhaps the pre-preeminent takeaway, aside from cheese, was café culture. Reader, I cherished café culture. Sitting at a café, sipping at my libation of choice, watching the world go by, letting time, worthless time, slip away, made my heart full. Nowhere, not even the movie theater, have I ever found a place that so impeccably matches my everyday air as every Parisian café I visited. The first time I sat at one, even though I did not necessarily know exactly where I was within the city’s geography, I felt right at home. Then again, I was on vacation. It is easy to bask when you are on holiday. I assume if I lived in Paris that I would not always bask in a café; sometimes, no doubt, I would lament. And that is why I love this extra so much. She could have just sat there, doing nothing more than clocking the hourly rate for a French extra. But she didn’t. She acted. She made a conscious choice to play this nameless patron a certain way. She lamented.

What’s more, in this particular frame, both she and Jean Reno’s Vincent seem to be lamenting, each of their gazes fixed downward in that way you do when some sort of existential question has left you  searching your soul for a doubtlessly non-existent answer. If extras are so often meant merely as, shall we say, bodily filler, existing simply to occupy space, forgotten even as they stand (sit) in plain sight, in this shot, the extra and the character rest, for one beautiful instant, on the same plain. In “Ronin”, may the movie gods bless it, everyone, line of dialogue or not, has something to lament.

Pour one out for the extra.