' ' Cinema Romantico

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The Aftermath

Set in post-WWII Hamburg, Germany, much of “The Aftermath”, based on a novel by Rhidian Brook, takes place inside a mansion requisitioned by the British, specifically for Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke), overseeing efforts to rebuild the city and deal with insurgent attacks, and his wife Rachael (Keira Knightley) who has just arrived from London. If the ornate, pristine interior stands in stark contrast to so much rubble of bombed out buildings outside, it is no haven, marked by a discernible chill, evoked in Rachael’s arrival where, standing on the balcony, admiring the view, she asks to go back inside since it is freezing, as if taking the cold with her. Some of the best shots in the movie are when Knightley just stands rock still inside the mansion as its expansive surroundings seem to swallow her up. Initially Rachael sits on the furniture, Knightley doesn’t even quite sit all the way down, just sort of perching on the edge; this is not home.

It not being Rachael’s home is merely underlined how its previous owners – Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann) – are still living there, upstairs in a different annex. This is only because Lewis feels humanist rumblings after witnessing the brutal death of a German in the street, despite this German’s Third Reich sympathy, and extends an olive branch to Stefan. Complications ensue, though they never feel too complicated, if only because Skarsgård is so genteel in his anguish and Freda’s dalliance with a Werwolf is nothing more than mere red herring. No, the real complication is in the relationship between Rachael and Lewis, already strained by the death of their son during The Blitz. With the emergent knowledge that a discoloration on the wall was where a portrait of you-know-who once hung, evoking an apparition of a war that has only nominally concluded, Rachael struggles to believe that everything is now just automatically peachy keen even if Lewis says so, prompting a transonic “you’re shitting me” look at him from her at dinner.

It might seem odd, then, that Rachael and Stefan get it on. But the all-of-a-sudden presentation, where he just plants one on her out of the blue and then, a little later, she just fiercely and without warning kisses him right back, leading to an affair right under Lewis’s nose, does not come across in this context as dubious character motivation but something like physical necessity. She needs someone. He needs someone too, suggested in how his own wife perished during the war. And so when Lewis is called away on a duty for a few weeks, a “Bridges of Madison County” situation germinates, though here, as Stefan takes Rachael as something akin to a marital replacement and Rachael starts doting on his daughter as something akin to her own, it feels less romantic than distressing, coloring scenes like the Stefan and Rachael throwing snowballs at each other in the light of two people having gone round the bend.

Yet rather than follow these characters down the intriguing rabbit hole of role-playing, it opts for forced sentimentality, bringing Lewis back early from his military responsibilities, interrupting this faux family unit and instigating a love triangle. At this point, the tenor of Knightley and Skarsgård’s performances don’t change but the context does, which makes “The Aftermath” come to feel like one of those movies where a climactic twist winds up in a brief montage of revisiting early scenes to cast them in a whole new light, but which we do in our minds instead. And so the scene of Stefan and Rachael throwing snowballs at one another transmutes from a creepy variation on “Rebecca” into Hallmark Channel fluff, the twist, then, in this case being that the whole movie collapses right before your very eyes.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

All You Had To Say Was 'Keira Knightley Stares Forlornly Out a Window'

An old Onion piece  appropriately titled: “All You Had To Say Was ‘Owen Wilson Befriends A Dolphin And I Was Sold’” imagines a Hollywood pitch meeting from the perspective of an agent who cuts off the pitch less than a sentence in not because the pitch is so bad but because the pitch is so good. “Listen—stop talking,” implores this imaginary agent. “I don’t need to hear the rest. The first half of the sentence was genius! ‘Owen Wilson befriends a dolphin and…’ And? What ‘and’? No ‘and’ necessary! Are you kidding me? I’m sold. Sold!” The agent then proceeds to concoct the rest of the movie right then. “Now, all we need to do is figure out the movie. What? You have a whole concept worked out already? Beautiful—but completely unnecessary. I’ll come up with the rest of it, off the top of my head, right now, while I’m on the 405.” This inevitably leads to the movie’s poster: “I see Wilson, the dolphin, front seat of a convertible, wearing shades. Yes, both of them.”

This piece is legendary amongst my movie-loving friends. Why just a few weeks ago, on the news site Facebook, my friend Daryl, in response to my posted “Gloria Bell” review, wrote “What do you mean ‘Julianne Moore goes dancing to disco music and?’ Your pitch meeting was over right there!” And I thought of that piece again as I sunk into the sofa and cued up the latest Keira Knightley joint, “The Aftermath.” And though the review will come, and the review will be honest and unmerciful, before the review, we have to discuss the beginning independent of the rest because, well, let me explain.

“The Aftermath’s” opening shot is an old steam train rounding the bed on some snowy mountain. A snowy mountain is right in my wheelhouse.

But then – then! – the very next shot – the second shot in the whole movie! – is pushing in on one of the train car windows where we see who else but Keira herself forlornly staring out of it. 

It wasn’t supposed to be funny, I know, but context is everything, and I have never seen a movie opening so specifically crafted to my peculiar, obsessive tastes. I don’t think I’ve laughed that hard at a movie since Rose Byrne told the story about the Bulgarian clown in “Spy.”

And that’s when I realized I could never be a Hollywood producer. That’s my kryptonite. That’s how you get me to greenlight anything. “All You Had To Say Was ‘Keira Knightley Stares Forlornly Out A Window’ And I Was Sold.’ I don’t need to hear the rest. The first half of the sentence was genius! What ‘and’? No ‘and’ necessary! Are you kidding me? I’m sold. Sold!” I don’t need to know what she’s staring at. Don’t tell me. And don’t tell me where the train is going. Does it matter? Of course it doesn’t matter. Keira Knightley is staring forlornly out a window! I’m hooked! Teeth, line and sinker! Wherever she’s going, I’ll go too, straight into the heart of melancholia, baby!

Monday, August 19, 2019

Biopic Genres for 2020 Democratic Presidential Candidates

Recently, on Cinema Romantico’s favorite podcast, The Press Box, the invaluable Bryan Curtis recounted a tale I’d never heard, wherein former Senator John Glenn sought to reap the release of “The Right Stuff” ⁠— in which he was a character, played by Ed Harris ⁠— in 1983 as free publicity for his 1984 Democratic Presidential candidacy. Alas, “The Right Stuff” failed at the box office and the expected polling boost went bust. It was, as Curtis noted, the original Beto O’Rourke Vanity Pair profile. [Rim shot!] Then Curtis and co-host David Shoemaker speculated about which of this year’s Democratic Presidential candidates they would most like to see campaign through a biopic, though only briefly touching on a possible Bernie Sanders movie and then dropping the subject. And that, of course, is where we come in. What is Cinema Romantico here for if not this?

Biopic Genres for 2020 Democratic Presidential Candidates

Joe Biden = Middlebrow Drama 

Drown it in soft lighting, give it a stately, sweeping score, apply sheen with vigor and those gaffes start to sound like wise platitudes.

Elizabeth Warren = Drama Based on National Book Award Winner For Non-Fiction

Not as detailed as the book.

Bernie Sanders = Coen Brothers-ish Slapstick

Bryan Curtis suggested Sanders would need a director with a kind of plain-spoken, direct, one foot in front of the other aesthetic, which brings to mind Kelly Reichardt. But, nah. I see Joel & Ethan Coen calling up Larry David from the SNL ranks and then sort of filtering a leftist version of the belligerent Walter Sobchak of “The Big Lebowski” through a “Hail, Caesar!”-ish Washington.

Kamala Harris = 1990s Legal Thriller

Despite questionable motives and dubious tactics that closing argument scene really reeled me in and now I really think I want to vote for- gah! I did it again!

Pete Buttigieg = After School Special

Predictable does not necessarily mean noneducational.

Cory Booker = Inspirational Sports Movie

He was on the Stanford team that came from 17 points down to upset #1 Notre Dame in 1990, remember, which in this context will become a metaphor for his own Presidential comeback. “No one believed in us!”

Beto O’Rourke = Rock Musical Fantasy

What if Foss never broke up?

Kirsten Gillibrand = Drew Barrymore Romantic Comedy

It was fine. A lot of people liked it ok. I don’t remember what it was called.

Jay Inslee = The Day After Tomorrow

Dude is Dennis Quaid in this movie. Everyone else is Vice President What’s-His-Face. (Ian Holm will still be played by Ian Holm.)

John Hickenlooper = Low-Budget Indie

Just a bunch of ordinary dudes drinking craft beer and talking through their problems. Shot on location at Wynkoop Brewery.

Andrew Yang = Movie Shot On An iPhone

35mm is dead.

Bill De Blasio = TNT Rerun

Wait, Gene Hackman and Dan Aykroyd were in a movie called “Loose Cannons”?

Marianne Williamson = That Werner Herzog Documentary Bells From The Deep 

You know, the one about the Russian Jesus / Flimflam Man.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Friday's Old Fashioned: Flashpoint (1984)

As border patrolman Bobby Logan, Kris Kristofferson is ostensibly the hero of “Flashpoint” (1984), though he’s not exactly heroic. That’s not to suggest he’s anti-heroic, necessarily, nor outright evil, but, as connoted in his frequent bemused chuckle and “whatever, man, you do you” grin, never gets all that hot and bothered; when he says he took this job for a little “peace and quiet”, you believe him. That peace and quiet is threatened, though, as director William Tannen’s thriller opens with some government flunky advising Bobby and his border patrol pal Ernie Wyatt (Treat Williams) and all the other agents about their imminent replacement with sensors planted in the desert that can detect border crossings. If this provides motivation for Bobby when he comes across $800,000 in cash buried in a jeep buried in the desert, it also foreshadows the government’s looming role in the proceedings, epitomized in a twist I never suspected until the t’s started getting crossed. Compared to the film’s more minimalist tendencies, this twist is rather overwrought, yet still comes off, not least because of Rip Torn’s grand supporting turn, which we’ll get to.

Upon finding the cash, Bobby lets Ernie in on his discovery, not least because Ernie takes this news of potential job displacement the hardest. But if Ernie rages against his employers, he has ideals, glimpsed in his no holds barred excoriation of a local border smuggling kingpin, and so the thought of absconding with money that isn’t his makes him queasy. So rather than simply taking the money and running, they decide to check out the origin of this jeep, running the license plate number through their computer system, setting in motion a chain of events that leads back to the Federal Reserve in Dallas, Texas and November 1963 which, well, connect the dots, hotshot. As the government quickly descends, given face by Carson, played with dependable sneering disdain by Kurtwood Smith, the more Bobby floats the idea of simply high-tailing it to Mexico, which is an irony that “Flashpoint” never pushes too much, Americans crossing the border going the other way.

“Flashpoint”, filmed in various locales throughout Arizona, has an impressive sense of place, the unremitting desert interspersed with jagged rocks and craggy crevices, underlined by a Tangerine Dream score accentuating the eerie emptiness. When Bobby and Ernie inspect the jeep, you never expect the expected moment of someone happening on them at just the wrong moment because you already sense they are too far away from everything. And that oblivion becomes the point more so than it being the border between America and Mexico. In fact, Carson recites a lengthy monologue about how the border and the problems accompanying it is nothing more than a vehicle for keeping a certain kind of patriotic fury in business. And though that feels even more relevant seen through the prism of Right Now, it’s still laying the whole thing on thick, though Kristofferson has his character meet this ornate monologue with the perfect plain-faced expression of bewilderment.

Yes, the American government is the villain here, and those persnickety motion sensors not only are coming for your jobs but symbolize the intrusion of the surveillance state, ensuring that no last speck of America land will go unwatched. The concluding shootout, including a brief bout of ho-hum slow motion, is no great shakes, but Torn, as a local sheriff, is. In his eccentric being, defined by a southern accent so marble-mouthed you almost lean forward in your seat to try and make it out, embodying an older, weirder America, where it still seemed so vast, where secrets seemingly so preposterous no one could ever believe them might remain tucked away out of sight, destined only to be found by accident.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

My All-Time Top 5 Favorite Springsteen Cinematic Needle Drops

Back in the glory days of the blogosphere, when I was writing part-time for the movie blogging bar & lounge Anomalous Material, I concocted a list detailing the best Bruce Springsteen needle drops in cinematic history. As a Bruce devotee, after all, who spent his lunch break on June 14, 2019 not eating but just walking around downtown Chicago listening to “Western Stars”, I felt fairly qualified to curate such a list. Anomalous Material, though, is long gone and so is that list, though that list wouldn’t be right anymore because, well, things have changed, I’ve changed, more movies have come along, so on and so forth. And this Friday, if you didn’t know, marks the release of “Blinded by the Light”, for which this Bruce-devoted blog is very excited, based, as it is, on Sarfraz Manzoor’s Springsteen-centric memoir “Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll” about growing up as a Pakistani Muslim in Britain and leaning on the sounds of Springsteen to get through. So, in the spirit of Championship Vinyl of “High Fidelity”, where Bruce made a legendary cameo as himself, giving council to the emotionally, romantically, spiritually confused Rob Gordon, here are my all-time Top 5 Favorite Springsteen Cinematic Needle Drops.

5. “Hungry Heart” in “The Perfect Storm” (2000). Rennie Sparks of The Handsome Family once said of this song – I swear, I can’t source the quote now – that it evokes how all of life is grasping. And that’s what this scene captures. If it is nominally a celebration at the infamous Crow’s Nest upon Billy Tyne and the crew of the Andrea Gail returning to Gloucester, it comes on the heels of introducing each character’s respective crisis, all of them grasping for just a little more, a mixture of agony and elation, which, like so much of Springsteen’s catalogue, the song evokes by being at once melodically bouncy and lyrically mournful.

4. “Born in the U.S.A.” in “Canadian Bacon” (1995). Michael Moore’s comedy detailing a few Americans invading Canada under mistaken pretenses was not in any way as good as its premise. Aside from a couple solid throwaway jokes about the C.N. Tower and, yes, William McKinley, there is only one genuinely great moment and it involves Bruce. It happens when John Candy’s Sheriff Bud Boomer and his small band of pseudo soldiers, crammed together in a truck, begin singing “I was Born in the U.S.A.” for a little jingoist inspiration. “I was Born in the U.S.A.,” they sing. “Born in the U.S.A.,” they sing again. Turns out, these are the only lines they know and so they just keep singing them, over and over. Say what you want about Michael Moore, please, feel free, but I will always love for him for slyly satirizing the longstanding comical, disheartening truth that most people have no idea what this song is actually about.

3. “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” in “Baby, It’s You” (1983). If Springsteen’s first album is uneven, this is one of the tracks that still illuminated it. Now long into his Revered Old Man phase, it’s a track that reminds you of the Young Springsteen’s swagger, when his voice was more a slur and less a groan, and so John Sayles, essentially a Jersey guy despite being born in New York, in making his 1983, 1966-set Jersey romance of an upper class Jewish girl and a lower class Italian boy nicknamed the Sheik, called on this song for a heightened scene in which the Sheik swaggers into the lunchroom, living out the brash lyrics, “I walked like Brando right into the sun and danced just like a Casanova.”

2. “Streets of Philadelphia” in “Philadelphia” (1993). The beginning of Jonathan Demme’s film is a montage of The City of Brotherly of Love itself, though this is no commonplace scene-setter but an evocative delineation of stakes –Phila-damn-delphia, birthplace of America, and this is us, all of this is all of us. And that’s why the solemn synthesizer and “bruised and battered” vocal of Springsteen’s Oscar-winning track is more a proper hymn to this nation than any Irving Berlin treacle.

1. “Tougher Than the Rest” in “Wild” (2014). The “High Fidelity” cameo is so great because it evokes how we Springsteen disciples cosmically consult with Bruce in our greatest times of need. And that’s what “Wild” does too, just through Bruce’s music. When Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), on her Pacific Crest Trail sojourn, happens upon a rushing river with a rickety log bridge the only option for crossing – go forward or go home – she pauses for an instant and says to herself, since no one else is with her, “Come on, Bruce. Sing with me.” And so the needle drops on this all-star “Tunnel of Love” track and together Cheryl and Bruce sing as she navigates the bridge and crosses to the other side and I’M NOT CRYING YOU’RE CRYING.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Tying More Sports to Sports Movies

If earlier this season Major League Baseball sought to broaden its appeal and fan base by playing games in London and Mexico, the MLB marketing department apparently decided that merely stretching the bounds of the real world was not enough. That’s because last week they announced that next season the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees would square off at the Field of Dreams. Yes, that Field of Dreams, the one from “Field of Dreams”, the 1989 baseball fantasy in which an Iowa farmer (Kevin Costner) constructs a baseball diamond in his cornfield to summon the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson, the set erected for the film in Dyersville, Iowa having gone on to become a beloved eastern Iowa tourist attraction.

As a native Iowan, the Field of Dreams means a great deal to me, and I wrote about what transforming this formerly quaint scenic attraction into a more sprawling, commercialized one might mean and why I was ok with it back in 2014 when it was sold by its original owners. I stand by that piece. If this is what they need to keep that field there, so be it. What I’m really interested in here, however, is the other possibilities this opens up for gimmick games, not just in baseball but all sports. After all, the NFL has played games in London and Mexico too, and the NHL has made a tradition of hosting an outdoor game on New Year’s Day. So what if other sports tried to tie the movies into their game presentation?

Home of the fictional Bridgetown Swing
You could stage games at Durham, North Carolina’s Durham Athletic Park (The DAP), home to the Bulls of the legendary “Bull Durham”, or at Davenport, Iowa’s majestic Modern Woodmen Park, home to the Bridgetown Swing of the should-be legendary “Sugar”, but then both these parks still stand and still host games. You can go buy an undoubtedly cheap ticket to see the North Carolina Central Eagles at The DAP just as you can buy a ticket to see the Class A Quad Cities River Bandits at Modern Woodmen Park. (I’d like to say we could stage a football game at the old Miami Orange Bowl, home to “Any Given Sunday’s” Miami Sharks, but the old Orange Bowl has since been demolished because the world is stupid.)

My longstanding dream has been for “The Naked Gun’s” Frank Drebin to really umpire a Major League Baseball game, preferably with a manager prone to hissy fits. But Leslie Nielsen passed away in 2010 and the California Angels are now the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Brought To You By Embassy Suites by Hilton Anaheim Orange anyway.

I have long been on record as saying that all Olympic fencing contests should be held not on a piste but in a replica of Nottingham Castle complete with a stone staircase and falling candelabra. But you know how the IOC is, you gotta bribe ‘em at a least a couple million to get anything done and so that’s out.

Golf isn’t a bridge too far for me so much as it is a bridge covered in khaki and polo that I just don’t want to cross. But if you wanted to spruce up golf, maybe take one of your lesser PGA Tour events – The Wyndham Championship in Greensboro sounds like it could use a little more glamour – purposely drop a TV tower on the 18th green a la “Happy Gilmore” and make those pros putt around it. I might tune in.

The NFL, as we know, likes nothing more than to give the appearance of caring about social issues. Why not pretend to tackle prison reform too? Stage a game at the Georgia State Prison in a nod to “The Longest Yard”, sort of Roger Goodell goes to Folsom? Or would Roger Goodell find an excuse to not attend?

Remember in “White Men Can’t Jump” when Sidney Dean explains to Billy Hoyle how playing on the beach means you need to adjust for the wind? Maybe we could make two NBA teams have to adjust for the wind and play a game on one of the courts at Venice Beach. It’s 24 minutes from the Staples Center! Bus Lebron and the Lakers and Kawhi and the Clippers out there on Christmas Day and have them go at it!

The NHL Winter Classic, meanwhile, has gone stale. They’ve played it at baseball stadiums and football stadiums since its inception in 2008. But if you wanna keep playing outdoor hockey, it’s time to get real; it’s time to head north for Banff National Park in Alberta where “Mystery, Alaska” was shot and play some damn pond hockey.

If these are all solid thousand dollar ideas, it’s time for the million dollar idea. Various Major League Baseball organizations have Bring Your Dog to the Park Day, right? So why not tie that into “Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch” (2002) and have each team for that night’s game employ a dog (breed to be decided by a fan vote). Don’t wag your finger at me, purists! Bill Veeck would have loved this! What’s more, because “Air Bud” is a whole series – basketball, football, soccer, volleyball – we can tie this into other sports!

See Kevin Durant scowl when an Alaskan Malamute fails to pass him the ball on the fast break; see Bill Belichik scold a beagle playing outside linebacker rush the passer when it should be dropping back into pass coverage; see Ronaldo flop when a Bedlington Terrier scoots underneath his legs; see an American Bloodhound use its nose to set Kerri Walsh-Jennings for the spike at the Manhattan Beach Open! THE POSSIBILITIES ARE ENDLESS!!!

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Operative

The eponymous operative of Yuval Adler’s film is Rachel Currin (Diane Kruger), whose rootless, global upbringing makes her a perfect target for Mossad, the Israeli security agency. This inherent lack of identity, therefore, built into the character also becomes something of the point, as movies about undercover agents often do, with the emergent possibility that Rachel gets In Too Deep or Might Never Have Known Herself At All, clichés “The Operative” flirts with giving genuine emotional heft. Alas, If there are moments when Adler’s film, based on Yiftach Reicher-Atir’s novel “The English Teacher”, suggests an immersive character study, she more often filters that character study through the framework of a traditional thriller, one that never capitalizes on the inherent tensions of its Iran-Israel relations, and duplicates standard-issue suspense scenes of, say, Rachel nearly being caught downloading sensitive information without expanding on it in any meaningful or exciting way.

“The Operative” begins mid-stream, with Rachel making an unexpected call to her former British handler Thomas (Martin Freeman), making him and Mossad worry something non-copacetic is up. The movie then circles back to Rachel’s beginning by way of Thomas explaining to his betters who she was, why she was recruited, what she did, cutting between past and present throughout, the sort of convoluted spy game suggesting John le Carré, though Adler does not evince the same sort of visual delicacy present in, say, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” where so much could be said without saying anything at all. Consider Rachel’s first mission to Tehran where she is woken in the middle of the night by men speaking in the hall. Seen only through the keyhole, these men may or may not be after her, though rather than waiting to find out, “The Operative” cuts to Rachel telling Thomas how this moment gave her confidence to live out her necessary lie to the fullest. It’s not that Adler shortchanges the suspense but that she presents Rachel’s epiphany entirely through dialogue rather than a short sequence laying it out visually instead, causing a crucial moment of characterization to feel perfunctory.

Exactly what renders Rachel so perfect for this position is mostly just assumed from her background, while her training is non-existent, leaving Thomas to continually explain why, for us as much as the Mossad higher-ups with whom he’s communicating, why she’s cut out for such significant intelligence. Going through Tehran airport security, however, Kruger plays the moment with such manifest fear that everything will go wrong it’s hard to believe she isn’t stopped and questioned, which is not a plot hole but a betrayal of the character as presented. Kruger is better elsewhere, however, in scenes of Iranian street life, where merely her air and loving looks to locals suggests what her voiceover also jumps in to tell us, an affinity for the place seeping in, an affinity that possibly clouds her judgement when the stakes rise and she is asked to infiltrate an electronics company, falling for the playboy, Farhad (Cas Anvar), who runs it.

Playing opposite him, Kruger is truly in her element, never betraying whether her affection for him is true or a put-on, evoked in a scene on a bench at a family wedding where in tenderly touching his face while definitively stating she hopes his ex-wife knows who he belongs to now, a moment which feels so formidable in her tone you wonder where this was when she was going through airport security. This question, in fact, yields more suspense than the more action-oriented avenues, Kruger making her love or not-love so hard to decipher that the open end might have been an electrifying summation of it, leaving her character to wander in the wilderness of a secret identity, if “The Operative” had more forcefully latched onto this idea in the first place.