' Cinema Romantico

Friday, August 18, 2017

Friday's Old Fashioned: Slipstream (1989)

Bad movies can be entertaining, even ennobling, shooting the moon and missing completely. Alas, director Steven Lisberger’s would-be sci-fi opus “Slipstream” is simply a nigh unwatchable fiasco, blindly edited with seemingly huge swaths of story missing and an overall look to the picture that suggests it was recorded on a camcorder pilfered overnight from the high school audiovisual room. Perhaps this was inevitable. Producer Gary Kurtz, famous for overseeing the “Star Wars” saga, said the budget fell apart just prior to filming and the studio refused to let them film sequences that would necessarily fleshed out the story. Maybe this after the fact covering, maybe not, but the fact remains that the finished product leaves a solid cast and crew hung out to dry, like composer Elmer Bernstein, for instance, whose score seems to take cues from his own “The Magnificent Seven” theme, unintentionally evoking parody. The lead performance by the late Bill Paxton, meanwhile, much too inane for a part that needed gravity, might well seem to be in, as they say, “a different movie”, but that’s just because I suspect he yearned to be in any movie other than the one in which he was starring.

The “slipstream” is a “river of wind” that has been engendered at some point in Earth’s future on account of “the convergence”, an event described in the voiceover as has having imperiled the planet’s weather systems, marking it as something of a pre-climate change disaster pic. Yet the film has more on its mind than simply existing as a cautionary tale, seeking to build off this admittedly interesting idea to illustrate how an environmental re-ordering of Earth nevertheless brings about the same sort of class distinctions. This is glommed onto something like a road movie by air, “Mad Max” with planes, in which Paxton’s Matt Owens, a vagrant catch-all, absconds with Byron (Bob Peck), an android wanted for murder and being hauled to justice by lawman Will Tasker (Mark Hammill), to collect a hefty reward.

The chase consists of several in-flight sequences, though these, like so many others, are jerkily edited, with movements of the craft in aerial footage not necessarily matching up to how the craft is moving when seen from inside, which elicits the odd impression of Owens or Tasker, who are typically at the controls, playing an arcade game. This amateur sensation is only amplified by the shoddy sound design, where the wind, this all-encompassing wind, which strangely only seems to become relevant when necessary for the action, rarely comes across as ferocious as intended, undermining the film’s most crucial element.

The emotional foundation of the film is meant to be Byron’s human urges, a la “Blade Runner”, which is not so much built to as just sort of suddenly dropped in, as the script’s multitude of stops and starts to make way for various on the ground vignettes render any momentum for the android’s arc non-existent. These in-between episodes make room for heavy-hitting guest stars, like Ben Kingsley as the leader of some cave-dwelling sect that worships the wind, and F. Murray Abraham ruling a group of hedonists hiding out in an underground museum. The third act revolves almost entirely around this latter pleasure-seeking cabal, deliberately indifferent to everyone else digging in the dirt, evoking 2015’s “High Rise.”

It’s more than a little funny, however, that the shoddy costumes and sets fail to underscore this group’s affluence, putting them more in line with the cave-dwellers, an accidental rendering that would be funny if the movie knew it was funny. What’s worse, the script never really condemns these hedonists, employing their lifestyle as a means for for Owens to acquire a Wait, How Did This Happen? love interest and for Byron to get a hold on how he feels, which is less philosophical than physical, demonstrated in a song and dance that no one will confuse for Broadway. It’s more than a little ironic, I suppose, that a movie which seemingly fell apart because it didn’t have any money ultimately sides with with the moneyed class. To paraphrase Reggie and Vincent from the same year of “Slipstream’s” release, don’t we all just wanna be rich?

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Thursday's Flashback to the 80s Freeze-Frame(s)

Steven Spielberg’s Cinema Romantico-certified masterpiece, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, was based on the old pulp magazines and adventure serials that he, and his collaborator George Lucas, loved so much, which is why the movie pleasingly skedaddles from one reverie of action to another with the bare minimum of exposition. It’s fun! Still, not so much tucked within this rip-roaring framework as standing quite openly right on top of it is something more brutal, evoked not merely in the immortal Marion Ravenwood’s introduction, tossing back whiskeys, but in her and Indy’s backstory, which the screenplay treads both lightly and loudly, involving a romantic affair that, from all available evidence, seemingly occurred while Marion was something close to, if not lawfully, underage. Yikes.

What’s more, Spielberg’s remarkable use of light and shadows suggest a film less like a cheap serial and more like a dark-hearted noir, such as the sequence in Marion’s Nepal bar, a photographic tour de force, as good as the medium gets, never more so than the indelible moment when Indy and the big Sherpa are engaged in a tussle and Ronald Lacey’s gestapo madman orders the dude in all black with the submachine gun to “shoot them both.” The dude in all black steps forward to do just that, except Indy and the big Sherpa work together by lifting Indy’s handgun to blast the dude in all black, a death unforgettably depicted in silhouette. The actor who portrayed the dude in black, Matthew Scurfield, is billed per IMDb as “2nd Nazi.” That’s important. He could have been billed as anything. He doesn’t even get a line! He could have been “The Dude In Black”, or he could have been “Man With Submachine Gun”, or he could have been “Gerhard”. But no, he is explicitly “2nd Nazi.”

“In ‘Raiders,’” wrote the esteemed Roger Ebert for his Great Movies entry on the film, “(Spielberg) wants to do two things: make a great entertainment, and stick it to the Nazis.” Spielberg, after all, is Jewish, and, as has been recounted in many places, spent his early life often being ashamed of and bullied for that heritage. An idea has emerged that he did not truly begin grappling with that heritage until his later, more “adult” films, to cite a cliché, like the remarkable “Schindler’s List.” Ebert played into this idea somewhat, writing that “Raiders” was “the work of Spielberg’s recaptured adolescence, I think; it contains the kind of stuff teenage boys like, and it also perhaps contains the daydreams of a young Jewish kid who imagines blowing up Nazis real good.”

In a 2008 review for Deep Focus, however, Brian Eggert went further, writing that “Spielberg’s passion in the project is felt so potently because the story, even on its pure escapist level, weighs on the filmmaker’s Jewish heritage. After all, the Nazis’ ultimate “solution” of wiping the Jews from the planet was Hitler’s sadistic design. He continues: “At stake then is not only the fate of an archeological landmark, but the entire Jewish people.” The American Jewish magazine Tablet, meanwhile, wondered three years ago if “Raiders” was actually more audacious than Quentin Tarantino’s Jewish avengers fable “Inglorious Basterds.” “And here, it’s not the Jews who foil the Nazis’ plans,” notes Gabriel Sherman, “it’s the spirit of God Himself.”

Indeed, Indy and Marion are tied to the stake when God gets, as God will, the last word, and the most ferocious shot in “Raiders” is the one above, the Ark stashed in a crate bearing the Nazis’ co-opted version of the swastika, and that swastika getting incinerated by You Know Who. Generally when we think of God speaking to us – if you think God speaks to us – it is through Scripture, or it is through someone who interprets Scripture for us, or it is through His/Her/Whoever's creation or miracles, though those creations and miracles are generally up to our own respective interpretations. Spielberg, however, by placing no one else in the scene, just us and the Ark, deliberately removes any possibility of interpretation. There is no mistaking what this is and Who is doing it. This is the wrath of God buttressing His/Her/Whoever’s unconditional love by expressing in no uncertain terms that this evil will not stand.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Power Ranking This Is Spinal Tap Names

“What's in a name?” wondered one Romeo Montague so many centuries ago. “That which we call a rose / by any other name would smell as sweet.” Eh, would it? I don’t mean to quibble there, Romeo, though I guess I do, because you mean to tell me that if you changed the word “rose” to, say, gillnet, that it would still smell as sweet? Yeah, I don't think so. This, I suspect, is proven most emphatically by the famed 1984 helmed mockumentary “This Is Spinal Tap.” That Rob Reiner film is chock full of striking names. These names are so striking that to dismiss them by wondering “What's in a name?” is identification blasphemy. Them who we call...well, I can’t spoil it, can I? Nah. Let’s count ’em down.

The Ten Best Names in This Is Spinal Tap

10. Derek Smalls. This is a good place to begin because it is evocative of how “This Is Spinal Tap” comes up with solid names – gotta love that “s” concluding a singular name – even when the names do not possess wackadoo chutzpah.

9. Lt. Bob Hookstratten. Wackadoo chutzpah like this name, for instance, a surname that sonically possesses a certain blustery quality that Fred Willard was born to embody.

8. Ronnie Pudding. Who doesn’t wish their last name was Pudding?!

7. Ian Faith. A name too good to be true, it fits just right for a band manager who is espousing something like false conviction.

6. Artie Fufkin. I cannot imagine a better name for a hapless promotions rep. There is something about the way it pops – FUF-kin – that makes you think you’re dealing with a guy who is not merely out of his element but never actually even in it.

5. David St. Hubbins. The surname seems to have been an ode to Derek St. Holmes, sideman for Ted Nugent, a gig that made me consider dropping St. Hubbins behind Artie Fufkin. Then again, I genuinely like any name with a St. prefix, and I really like it for St. Hubbins because it lends a phony regality that every frontman worth his ego should wholly believe in.

4. Nigel Tufnel. Like Derek Smalls, it fails to catch the eye in that same Whoa There way as St. Hubbins. Yet it nevertheless has that sort of plausible Robert Fripp-ish ring without existing as an homage.

3. Sir Denis Eton-Hogg. This, as my girlfriend likes to say, is the quintessential British name, especially because it leads with a “Sir”.

2. Bobbi Flekman. It’s perfect. It’s a perfect name. But it is not, mind you, an aptronym. It is not Usain Bolt or William Wordsworth or Amy Freeze, the meteorologist. No, like Burt Reynolds is absolutely a Burt, or like John Kruk is definitely a John Kruk, or like Kate Middleton is irrefutably a Catherine Elizabeth Middleton, there can be no doubt that Fran Drescher is a Bobbi Flekman.

1. Marty DiBergi. Are there “better” names in “Spinal Tap”? Maybe. But Marty DiBergi is the moniker that ties the whole movie together.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Big Sick

Though “The Big Sick” is based on the real life courtship of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, who co-wrote the script for director Michael Showalter, it was made under the umbrella of producer Judd Apatow, whose own films, while often centered on romance, spring just as much from the world of standup comedy, where characters, even when speaking scripted dialogue, so often feel as if they are riffing in real time, with scenes frequently elasticized to the breaking point, where mining for the right joke often feels paramount to whatever the scene itself is meant to mean. And while Nanjiani and Gordon’s script does turn rather serious, it is considerably jokey too, though with much more of a purpose than a typical Apatow film, where even as the film documents an unconventional courtship, it also deconstructs the way in which we use jokes, to flirt, to disport, to discuss, to diffuse, to deflect.

Nanjiani plays a semi-fictionalized version of himself, also named Kumail, a Pakistani-American navigating the waters of the Chicago comedy scene. As the film opens, he is faux-heckled at a gig by the semi-fictionalized version of Emily, re-named Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan), and when he approaches her after the show, the give and take continues, and continues on their dates after that, their burgeoning relationship consciously, effectively evoking the idea of two comics riffing. Though they are clearly compatible, Kumail keeps secret his devout Muslim family’s yearning for him to settle down with a Pakistani women, the latter conveyed in a series of a family dinners which could use a touch more dimension but nevertheless allow for Kumail’s mom’s (Zenobia Shroff) reaction to the doorbell – “I wonder who that could be” – to become a pretty funny running joke infused with familial pressure.

The prospective brides paraded before Kumail are the stars of brief comic bits too, though in the case of Khadjia (Vella Lovell) that comedy eventually gives way to piercing clarity. She calls Kumail on the carpet when he confesses to just going along with these dates for the sake of his mother, a denial of the circumstances that induces more pain for others than himself, like Khadjia, and like his family, and like Emily who breaks up with him when she discovers he has been withholding this crucial detail, with Kumail’s standard issue cry of “I was going to tell you” ringing properly hollow. And this would have been enough for the film, sort of a rom com version of Ken Loach’s wonderful “A Fond Kiss”, but “The Big Sick”, as the title implies, throws us for another loop when Emily is rushed to the hospital with a mysterious but major illness and placed in a medically induced coma, signed off on by Kumail who, through happenstance and then devotion, finds himself as Emily’s caretaker and then Emily’s family orbit when her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), arrive.

Through witticisms and non-deeds (like watching Youtube videos instead of praying), we sense Kumail’s alienation from Pakistani culture, more in tune with the heterogeneousness of America, which is emblemized in the marriage of Beth, who hails from North Carolina, and Terry, originally from New York, a deliberate mixture of regionality representing Emily’s inherent cultural diversity. And that diversity opens up even more as Kumail enters the fold, essentially becoming the suitor, not unlike all the prospective Pakastani brides he turned his nose up at, though this is not overtly played with Kumail actively trying to sell himself but just sort of intrinsically rising from the whole twisty process. No one would confuse “The Big Sick” for being visually inventive, but Showalter still manages to wrest real emotions from moments with this unlikely trio, like a meal in a hospital cafeteria that emits the air of an awkward family dinner, one where Terry cannot help but proffer the wrong joke at the wrong time.

The casting of Romano, not exactly a versatile actor, is fairly ingenious, impeccably utilizing his specific skill set. His character is as jokey as Kumail, allowing for Terry to become something of a reflection for his daughter’s ex-boyfriend, to put Kumail’s penchant for wisecracking when self-reflection might be in order under the microscope. He sees what Terry’s attitude does to Beth, which Hunter plays off perfectly, alternating between a weariness for life and a fondness for it, caustic and compassionate, a yin and a yang that defines her entire lived-in performance, one in which she does not allow her character to compartmentalize anything but to spew forth, for better or worse.

Still, even as they all warm up to one another, the movie never sidesteps the fact that Emily is, like, in a coma, and that when – er, if – she wakes, she will have not been privy to any of this and will have to go through her own process of discovery. So many films made of these sorts of storylines step so wrong with conclusions that frustrating simplify, but “The Big Sick” never does, allowing all its characters to maintain an honest dialogue with one another and chart their way to a conclusion that feels satisfying without ringing patently false by making everything perfect. Indeed, if the whole thing seems to be building toward a kind of “I Have Cancer” Tig Notaro moment for Kumail, where he employs real life for comical philosophy, that doesn’t actually happen. It stops short, as if knowing that there actually are some things you can’t bring yourself to joke about.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Friday's Old Fashioned: Brotherhood of Justice (1986)

Despite several names in the cast that would come to prominence not long after its debut, “Brotherhood of Justice” was a TV movie that aired on ABC, first in 1986 and then again in 1991. Indeed, myriad cliffhangers fading to black suggesting spaces for commercial drops, odd handheld camera work like tracking with a waitress carrying a pan of pizza where the actress seems to be going to great pains not to look at the camera, and the script’s determination to package Lessons to the youth of America all give it that distinct made-for-TV smell. The plot concerns a prestigious California high school beset by a crimewave so troubling that the local police pay a visit to the school’s principal (Joe Spano), a principal that brays about his school’s academic standing while simultaneously shooting Nerf hoops, a comical contrast I am not entirely certain was actually intentional. Rather than submit to private security, however, he gives a speech to the senior class that is, frankly, a thinly veiled call to arms, evoking Sam Adams telling the Sons of Liberty pre-Tea Party there was nothing else to be done. Sure enough, post-speech a vigilante unit of student council members and celebrated athletes emerges deemed the Brotherhood of Justice.

They are captained by Derek (Keanu Reeves) and co-captained by Les (Billy Zane), though the gang also includes Scottie who is played by Darren Dalton who also starred in 1984’s “Red Dawn” which I note because the “Brotherhood of Justice” suggests what might happen if The Wolverines of “Red Dawn” morphed into something like the malcontents of “Over the Edge”. This is because the Brotherhood begins with earnest intentions, if questionable tactics, going after drug dealers, even as the vandals of the film’s introductory passage seem to mysteriously vanish from the proceedings. Nevertheless, the Brotherhood gets results, though we see these results less than just hearing about them third-hand, either an emblem of the film’s paltry budget or of its director – Charles Braverman – taking the easy way out. Alas, the Brotherhood’s noble intentions quickly turn deplorable as they turn more and more violent and turn their attention less to legit troublemakers then to people they personally don’t like, settling scores, as the Brotherhood of Justice transforms into that which they set out to eradicate.

As you might expect, “Brotherhood of Justice” has innumerable poorly rendered passages, a slow motion knife attack and a hapless extra with a pointless control panel prop in particular, yielding high unintentional hilarity. Still, a cheap movie doesn’t have to be thoughtless, as countless modern indies and old school sci-fi goes to show, and Braverman’s film tries. Setting the film in California rather than Texas was probably a production necessity, but it still gives the film a chance to consider anti-Hispanic sentiment. Alas, this mostly goes nowhere, summarized in a sequence where the hapless gringos get a talking to from some surprisingly gracious Mexican gangbangers, a case of painting with the very clichés it seeks to subvert. What sticks out, however, is a sense of entitlement, evinced in Derek, who dresses like Steff McKee, dating Christie (Lori Loughlin), who works two jobs to get by, and her eventually drifting more toward proletarian Victor (Keifer Sutherland), whom Derek naturally eyes with suspicion.

Victor is never fully-formed, more just a red herring, but that also makes him emblematic of the lower class, fingered for all the community’s problems in this movie but never given a voice, and not having necessarily done anything. Derek’s journey, of course, means having to figure this out for himself, an archetypal journey not exactly sold by Reeves who, frankly, seems most at ease when there is less at stake. Billy Zane, on other hand, who in recent years has sadly fallen off the radar, is coolly hypnotic in his embrace of heinousness, introduced by eyeing a couple Mexicans like they are to blame for all the ills of the world. “What’d you want me to do, Derek?” he asks after the aforementioned knifing. “Pants him?” It’s less funny than stone cold, as if he fancies himself too cool for a burnout’s trite gags.

“Brotherhood of Justice” was made in the wake of the real life Legion of Doom, a gang comprised of well to do students from Fort Worth’s Paschal High in 1985. After watching the movie, I read Jan Jarvis’s 1985 article for Dallas’s D Magazine examining the Legion of Doom. Her comprehensive piece suggested the wholesome image these boys cut belied something more sinister, taking furious umbrage with non-conformity, even dabbling in Nazism. “Brotherhood of Justice” doesn’t dare get that dark, all except Billy Zane, who in his refusal to hint at a lurking humanity is the one actor getting across the idea that elitism as arrogance breeds evil. Put him on your high school guidance poster.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Thursday's Flashback to the 80s Freeze-Frame

While “La La Land” rightfully took some shots for its tenuous grasp of jazz history, and while its main male character was perhaps not as endearing as its creator might have suspected, there was still plenty to dig, preeminently its colors, harkening back to the wondrous era of Cinemascope, when a movie need not look like Real Life. This was never more true than the rocket propelled “Someone in the Crowd” when Emma Stone’s dreamer and schemer is pulled from her apartment by her trio of friends – a pink apartment, that is, a nifty implantation of a lesser known Los Angeles locale that mixed impeccably with one of those peerless magic hour California skies, all of it brought home by the quartet’s not-matching primary color crayon-ed dresses as they sauntered down the street and (I’m quoting myself) march directly into your damn heart. Seeing that scene made me think of other moments at the cinema in which color spoke to me, like the boiling orange of the latrine scene in “Platoon”, or the Sherwood Forest of “Adventures of Robin Hood” erupting in eye-popping Technicolor. But like any dude born in 1977, “Star Wars” taught me so much, and I’m not talking about “A New Hope” in this case but “Empire Strikes Back.”

The “Star Wars” universe, with storytelling akin to the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive, is very accelerated and noisy, leaping from one of action-oriented confrontation to the next. Even its more intimate moments, like those between Luke and Yoda on Dagobah, still feel fraught with emotional weight, and its brief downtime can even be infiltrated, like that game of holographic chess while chilling out in hyperspace in the (real) first “Star Wars” ending with a threat of arms being torn out of sockets. No, the closest the series ever got to an actual respite occurred during the late stages of “The Empire Strikes Back.”

In a way, it should not be a respite at all. After all, it is right after Han and Leia and Chewie and 3-PO have evaded the Imperial Starfleet for about the 47th time in the movie by powering down the fabled Corellian frigate mid-flight and hiding on the back of a star destroyer, which puts them right there in the midst of the entire Imperial Starfleet seen moving to and fro just outside the cockpit window. One eagle-eyed Imperial lookout spots them and it’s all over for our rebel heroes. Never mind that 3-PO is, as 3-PO will, wailing non-stop. But Leia switches off 3-PO and Han dispatches Chewie to the rear of the ship and suddenly the Princess and the Smuggle have the cockpit all to themselves. He says they need to find someplace to port and calls up some sort of undefined sci-fi-y map screen on the Falcon’s control panel, a sci-fi-y map screen that bathes their faces in blue.

That blue completely flips the switch. It shuts down the engines on the movie just as the Falcon’s own engines have been shut down to evade detection. Throughout “Empire Strikes Back”, the colors emanating from the massive control panel at the rear of the cockpit cast the characters and the chairs the characters occupy in an orangeish glow. Orange, if you consult your local color aural expert, and why wouldn’t you if you are already a “Star Wars” nerd who believes in The Force, tends to represent confidence, a healthy ego, a daredevil attitude, passion, even sexual energy, which is not at all out of place in the verbal bickering of Han and Leia. But this blue softens the proceedings, communicating to them and to us, sitting in the eye of an Imperial hurricane, just after a movie-and-a-half of buildup, before another movie-and-a-half of wrap-up, that it’s finally time to take our legally mandated twenty second fifteen minute break.