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Sunday, February 28, 2021

Coming Tuesday: Middling Thriller March



March means Daylight Savings, the long-awaited moment when we emerge from winter’s dark-at-dusk cocoon to finally spring forward. Cinema Romantico, on the other hand, this March, wants to spring backward. Our love of middling thrillers is no secret here; we have sought them out frequently during the Pandemic, getting lost in the cozy rhythms of their mere adequacy. But watching “The Little Things” (review to come) made us miss them all that much more. And so if for some the third month of the year means March Madness™ and the Spring Equinox, for Cinema Romantico, in 2021 anyway, it means Middling Thrillers, every Tuesday, on the dot, reviewed with tough love. Join us, won’t you?

Friday, February 26, 2021

Friday's Old Fashioned: Ruby in Paradise (1993)

Victor Nunez’s Ruby in Paradise (1993), bearer of Ashley Judd’s greatest performance, long unavailable outside a sketchy YouTube upload and other suboptimal means, has been re-released by Quiver Distribution, bless their souls, in high definition master to rent or to buy through various digital platforms and virtual cinemas. This is truly wonderful news. Perhaps Criterion could be next? In its honor, here is our 4-year old review of it, a Friday’s Old Fashioned second round. Then go watch it. 

“Ruby in Paradise” opens with Ruby Lee Gessing (Ashley Judd) fleeing her abusive partner in Tennessee by driving south, disappearing into the darkness as she does, before re-emerging in the light of Florida’s panhandle where she seeks to change her life. Life changes at the cinema often come about because of Big or Unplanned Events pulsing with readymade drama, and some movies do fine jobs of illustrating such transformations. But life just as often changes without capital letters, taking place quietly, by accumulating experiences and then allowing time for those experiences to be considered and put into context. Victor Nunez renders such a subtle transformation in “Ruby in Paradise” by simply observing Ruby as she spruces up her dingy living quarters, performs the menial tasks required at the tourist shop where she works, meets new people, learns from each of these seemingly underwhelming events, lessons she writes downs. Those lessons, befitting the cheap spiral notebook in which she pens them, are more functional than grandiose. 


Ruby comes to Florida because the lone good memory she clings to is a family vacation there, a fanciful notion that “Ruby in Paradise”, with its grimy yet hopeful air, both laughs at and embraces. Nunez gives her moments to stand on the beach, feet in the water, shimmering in the sunset, but he also counteracts these moments with all manner of mundane strip malls not far from the sand, and the shop where Ruby works, which, save for some tropical trinkets, could be anywhere. And that Ruby arrives in the off season, while a means to give her a little extra soul-searching time, illustrates a Florida away from the lull of tourism, where everyday locals work low wage jobs, an economic reality that comes through even clearer when Ruby briefly loses her position at the souvenir shop and finds work in an industrial laundry. During the latter, Ruby goes through the grueling motions, fighting to stay present, which her co-workers, seen laughing both on the job and off it, stress as being of the utmost importance, suggesting a life of such labor can drain all the life from you, a frightening proposition that “Ruby in Paradise” suggests might be the worst fate of all.

It’s also telling that at this job, like her job at the tourist shop, Ruby is principally surrounded by women. This is not just a movie told from an economically poor vantage point, but the from a woman’s point-of-view too. Sure, Ruby finds herself in the company of men too, like the shop owner’s son, a semi-smooth talking lout, a broad performance by Bentley Mitchum that is the movie’s primary weak point. Even so, it makes sense that Ruby would go down that road, reverting to previous behavior, like it’s been ingrained all her life, and ultimately reminding her she came here to break free. Her relationship with Mike (Todd Field) is more pleasant, because he at least treats her well and introduces her to new things, though cracks emerge there too, as he proves to be a pessimist by nature about nature, who loves the land but can only see the bad being done. Even more, though, his ideas of a relationship skew conservative, which is what eventually turns Ruby away, when he tells her “I’ll take care good of you” and she replies “Every girl’s dream” with the sort of voice that lets you know it damn sure isn’t.


In a movie where so little happens, in a traditional sense, where the journey is one principally taking place inwardly, the lead actress becomes paramount in propping up the production, and Judd, in her first feature film role, is up to the task. Consider a downturn for Ruby, stuck between jobs, when Nunez presents her with a momentary ray of light in the form of a piece of pie brought over by a neighbor. In the moment that Ruby eats her dessert for dinner, Judd does not overplay, refraining from some exaggerated “mmmmm” or some such, knowing the emotion is construed via the scene’s context and that all she needs to do is exist within it. With many of her character’s thoughts relayed in voiceover, Judd gives them not the ring of cemented truth but food for thought. And though Ruby assumes a determined air in applying for her first job, most elsewhere Judd is content to let her listen, and let you see her listening, and then sizing up what was said and deciding for herself. Movies so often insistently impress change upon their characters with external events whereas Judd pulls the niftiest actor trick of all – she lets you see how the change comes from within.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Legally Obligated Golden Globes Predictions



The Golden Globes cannot always be trusted, to paraphrase Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) of “Jackie Brown”, but you can always trust the Golden Globes to be the Golden Globes. Indeed, last weekend, an L.A. Times investigation exposed the Globes’ governing body, the oft-derided Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), as nothing less than a corrupt cabal. The HFPA operates, it turns out, no differently than your garden variety crooked college football bowl game, ostensibly functioning as a non-profit to redirect compensation to themselves and taking money from a TV network (NBC) that has essentially transformed its ceremony into less of an autonomous awards banquet than a made-for-television event. And though I would like nothing more than to submit the GIF of Claude Rains in “Casablanca” declaring that he is “shocked, shocked to find there is gambling going on here”, The Globes, however frivolous you and I know them to be, have positioned themselves, not least through NBC’s platform, as an industry weather vane. That’s why the L.A. Times also revealing the HFPA’s membership includes zero black members was rightfully excoriated. It’s why so many people were furious when the universally trashed Netflix series “Emily in Paris” landed so many nominations and the critically acclaimed British series “I May Destroy You“ earned none. Award shows matter as much as we say they matter and so I have always wished we would treat The Golden Globes like what they are: a more glamorous version of the MTV Movie Awards or the Blockbuster Entertainment Awards (RIP). And yet, through their avarice and NBC’s insistence, the Golden Globes have attained significance. 

Of course, now we know, by virtue of the L.A. Times, those “Emily in Paris” nominations were, more or less, bought and paid for, the show’s creators flying 30 HFPA members to Paris and putting them at a five-star hotel, akin to “Doctor Dolittle’s” “prime-rib-and-free-booze campaign of dinner screenings”, to quote Mark Harris’s “Pictures at a Revolution” that garnered that stink bomb nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, proving the stuffy Oscars and boozy Globes are not all that different. And just as the Oscars have sought reform, not least through diversifying their ranks, the Golden Globes only hope may be reform too. But who on Earth aside from the most craven would want to join the HFPA such as it is? (Will someone from the HFPA get up there on Sunday night and blame Awards Show Cancel Culture, the trust fund cousin of Constitutional Cancel Culture?) No, you’d have to expunge them all, and if you expunged them all, would the HFPA be the HFPA? And would The Globes be The Globes? If your awards are predominantly a farce, how can they be farcical when buffoons aren’t running the show? Granted, if they did reform, for real, the non-profit could potentially be used for altruism. And my despite my recurring proclamation about The Globes merely being Hollywood’s Office Party, so stop taking them seriously, if they took themselves seriously, set an example and did some good for the industry, rather than the bad, well, I don’t want be the one jackass over here telling people to bring back the corruption and greed. 

In that light, the only Golden Globes prediction I will make is this: “Emily in Paris” winning for Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy. Because not only would that be the funniest thing ever, it would be the ultimate nail in the HFPA coffin. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Ray of Light

Last year, on this very blog, I deemed Alfre Woodard in “Clemency” as perhaps the best movie drunk I have ever seen. I stand by that, though in recently re-watching “The Philadelphia Story” I was reminded that if there is a close second, a worthy challenger, if not a usurper, at least from a different angle, it is Jimmy Stewart. It happens midway through George Cukor’s 1940 classic, the night before Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is to be married to What’s-His-Face, the guy who doesn’t stand a chance, destined to lose out to C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant). Before that happens, though, spurring it along, in fact, Mike Connor (Stewart), the reporter tasked with concocting a story out of this whole marriage, deeply suspicious of the rich & famous, gets drunk and seeks out C.K. to hash out his feelings.


Mike Connor: “Are you still in love with her? Or perhaps you consider that to be a very personal question. Liz thinks you are! Liz thinks you are.” 

The wag of the finger up there, that’s Mike decreeing “Liz thinks you are!”, truly honoring that exclamation point, like he’s caught C.K. red-handed. But then instantly, Stewart downshifts, bringing his own disappointment about that development to the surface, almost seeming to say the second “Liz thinks you are” to himself.  

Mike Connor: “Although of course women like to roman..romanticize things a bit.”

The ellipsis denotes a drunken hiccup, which in the hands of most mortals would have been a stagy affectation but as emitted by Stewart really sounds like the bubbly just expanded his stomach. 

C.K. Dexter Haven: “Yes, they do, don’t they?”
Mike Connor: “Yes they do, don't they.”

The rhythm Stewart hits on repeating C.K.’s line is verbatim is perfect. I have a friend, who shall remain nameless to protect the innocent, who I’ve heard, when inebriated, do a version of that and, man, Stewart’s version is dead-on. I mean, dead-on. Granted, Stewart gets the perfect scene partner here in Grant, playing the tee-totaler to perfection with that kind of bemused air you get when suddenly confronted with a drunk person less menacing or violent than comical and a little too unaware of personal space. But Stewart is not just playing drunk to be funny.

If Woodard’s drunkenness in “Clemency” quietly gave away how her prison ward character was holding by the slightest of threads, in drunkenly pressing C.K. on his feelings about this ex-wife, the scene itself finds Mike admitting his brewing infatuation with Tracy. Science may be skeptical of drunkenness as a truth serum but this isn’t science, this is art, and Stewart’s intoxication really does seem to yield unwitting authenticity. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Some Drivel On...Salt

Here is something you may or may not know: Angelina Jolie is 5 feet 7 inches tall. That’s a fact, yes, but I don’t believe it. I do not believe that I am taller than Angelina Jolie. It’s inconceivable. That’s the irresistible lie of the big screen, how it can render someone the same height as Mark Zuckerberg bigger than the Sphinx. Movie Stars and the typically annoying conversations surrounding them – whether they exist, what makes them – tend, as I have lamented so many times before, to be frustratingly distilled down to box office receipts, or some irksome variation of analytics, as if you can quantify something as ineffable as screen presence. Angie cracked the code, if only more people would notice. You could see that presence beginning to fuse with her acting in “Alexander” (2004) where, even as she chewed scenery, she held the screen with a magnetism befitting the Queen of Macedonia. You could see it, too, in “Wanted” (2008) which, for all its bells and whistles, was best when Jolie was simply sauntering across screen or standing there. Seriously, no modern actor just stands on screen like Angelina Jolie; it is an elemental gift. But it was not until “Salt” in 2010 when a director, the veteran Phillip Noyce, truly seized on Jolie’s presence by making virtually an entire movie out of it.


Salt is the surname of Evelyn (Jolie), a CIA agent, one tasked with interviewing a Russian defector (Daniel Olbrychski) as the movie opens. The defector weaves a grand tale of Russian sleeper spies implanted all over the American government, waiting to strike, citing one secret agent in particular: Evelyn Salt. ’Tis a grand setup, truly grand, culminated in how Noyce shoots the immediate aftermath of this revelation in a finely calibrated series of close-ups, of Salt, of her superior officer (Liev Schrieber), of the CIA counter intelligence officer (Chiwetel Ejiofor) listening in, an early signal of Noyce honoring the principle tenet of the silver screen being about human faces. Indeed, that set-up is extra brilliant because it lays out in exact detail what is going to happen, the only question being whether or not Salt really is who the defector says she is, meaning that rather than digging in our heels and paying attention, we can lean back and lose ourselves in the movie, in exacting action sequences where Salt is locked in a contained CIA room and has to manufacture escape or, when seemingly cornered on a city street, leaps from a freeway overpass onto a passing semi-truck below. Whether the latter makes sense where the laws of physics are concerned, as a common action movie complaint goes, makes little difference because visually it makes complete sense. Noyce and his crack cinematographer Robert Elswit, bless their hearts, forgo blurs of close-ups to shoot coverage and maintain spatial coherence. 

As Salt, Jolie begins the movie in a familiar register, playing a woman who, initially, just wants to get home in time for an anniversary dinner with her husband (August Diehl) and then, once all hell breaks loose, assuming an air of determined desperation, evinced in how she grits her teeth as as the walls figuratively close in. But then, a curious, interesting thing happens. As it becomes clearer that Salt is, in fact, a Russian sleeper spy (11-year old spoiler alert), Jolie lets that sort of Richard Kimble-ish countenance fall by the wayside, simmering down. Jolie is doing this in part as a feint, to make us wonder what the character is up to as she assassinates the Russian President (or does she?). Whatever it means, though, proves less crucial to how it all feels, the powerful grace with which Jolie moves, highlighted in the elegant motion of Noyce’s camera, and, even more, the ultra-cool with which she does not move on camera at all, an action blockbuster merging with a study of performative charisma. When her character is momentarily caught mid-movie and raises her hands, her smile is more of a taunt, sure, but it’s also her ultimate movie star moment, the one when Jolie effortlessly harnesses the full capacity of the camera.


Initially Tom Cruise was slated to play Salt, then named Edwin, before he dropped out, apparently deeming the part too close to his recurring “Mission: Impossible” role. When Jolie stepped in, so too did screenwriter Brian Helgeland, tailoring the character for a woman. How much of a change there was, I don’t know, but it’s not difficult to imagine the most significant alteration as occurring less on the page than in actorly demeanor. In the increasingly excellent M:I movies, Cruise has perfected his own movie star persona, one I have previously appraised, harmonizing with his penchant for intense DIY stunts to aggressively demonstrate his commitment, in the way he squints, grimaces, runs, jumps. Jolie, too, was lauded for doing some of her own stunts in “Salt”, but rather than underlining it, strains all that zealousness away, opting for a potent manifestation of cinema’s oldest, truest rule: less is more. Rarely has less been so much.   

Monday, February 22, 2021

Soul

The title of the latest Pixar adventure, “Soul”, refers not to music, though jazz does play a semi-prominent role, but to the essential core of a person. Co-directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers literalize and lampoon the notion of a human being’s soul, not unlike the way Docter’s “Inside Out” had fun with the human mind, while taking us to fantastical places, a la Pixar’s Coco conjuring up the Land of the Dead. “Soul”, however, in toggling between breezy comedy for the kids and more existential questions for the adults works against an emergent theme of life’s meaning being distilled down to an appreciation of the little things by succumbing to its myriad aesthetic complications, a strange, occasionally great, beautifully animated, frequently muddled stew.


As “Soul” opens, Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a music teacher, is molding young musical minds. It’s a curious opening, if not a harbinger, where the kids come across inspired by Joe even as “Soul” simultaneously portrays him as teaching with one head out the door, more consumed with a desire to play jazz for a living, a message as distracted as Joe himself seems to be. At least, though, that distraction informs his downfall. After nailing an audition to play piano for a local jazz singer (Angela Bassett), Joe fails to see an open manhole in his excitement walking home and falls through. If this scene begins as comic setpiece of near misses, the transition is jarring in its suddenness, forcing us to recognize Joe’s instant death at the same rate as the character, while also proffering a subtextual lesson that wanting something too much or just wanting too much in general renders one blind to life’s peril.

Then again, death does not exactly enlighten Joe. Rendered a bodiless blob, Joe finds himself aboard a conveyor belt, imagining the ostensible sweet hereafter as a bleary subterranean airport walkway tracking toward The Great Beyond, a massive bright white light with a strange buzzing sound, like a refrigerator on the fritz. If other blobs simply stand there, at once transfixed and terrified, Joe turns and runs, still clinging to the belief his life had turned around, spilling off the walkway and into The Great Before, an enchanting place of blue fields and violet hills, where souls are molded for their Earthly descent to occupy a human. Mistaken for a mentor, Joe is assigned to 22 (Tina Fey), an insubordinate soul that has refused entering a human body for centuries, discouraged by the unpredictability of human life. Rather than guiding 22, however, she becomes something more like his co-conspirator, helping finagle a way to get Joe back into his body on Earth.

It is an inherently fascinating juxtaposition, a child, essentially, who does not want life to begin and an adult, more or less, who does not want life to stop. That 22 also takes Joe to The Zone, the mystical place where artists and athletes are said to lose themselves, but portrays it as a place where people are just as apt to lose themselves completely, “Soul” not only paints its two main characters as lost souls but brings to vivid life the scary side of obsession. Indeed, it redefines an earlier scene of Joe losing himself in music not as less moving than corrosive. From here “Soul” metamorphoses once again into a body switch comedy when the unlikely duo’s descent to Earth results in a mix-up: rather than re-entering his own body, Joe enters the body of a cat, while 22 enters the body of Joe. Though Joe finally transforms into something like 22’s shepherd through his feline form, the underlying connotations weigh this genre shift down. 

Though the nature of the movie’s soul suggests something apart from color, that’s the kind of cozy myth “Soul” cannot help but counteract in casting a white woman to give voice to 22, meaning it is a white voice coming out of a black body, a fundamental problem Docter clearly recognized by enlisting the black Powers as co-director. Granted, the involvement of Powers yields some of the movie’s strongest material, like a pair of scenes in a barbershop that feel delightfully as much like their own world as anything in The Great Before. As it is, however, an otherwise refreshing animated examination of black lives is compromised by this half blind point-of-view. 

At the same time, for all the The Great Before’s unique visual splendor, evincing its counselors as two-dimensional, almost like cubist paintings plucked from the canvas, as if whatever is Up There is beyond our imagination, the place itself is nevertheless strangely, even frighteningly, reminiscent of our world. Indeed, counselors dole out traits to souls like they are engines or hoods on an automobile assembly line, soul creationism, in a sense, mixed with the quota-based tempo of an American manufacturing line. Must even the afterworld assume the air of Amazon.com, Inc.?


It is in direct conflict, in fact, with how 22 autonomously grasps her essence. In this way, the body switch scenes, while tone deaf, are also the movie’s best, a variation on the idea of New York as a place to flee for reinvention. The animation of NYC might not be as imaginative as its invented worlds, inherently constrained by the real-life place, yet nevertheless achieves a transcendent beauty all its own. The dollops of autumn light, the way the light falls across the street, at once feels like both an identifiable New York and one that exists only in an idealized memory while everyday objects like a slice of New York-style pizza and a helicopter seed lyrically evince life’s (Earth’s) overwhelming beauty. “Soul” may be overstuffed and inconsistent, but when that seed falls from the sky, for a moment, being alive seems so simple. 

Friday, February 19, 2021

Who Should Play the Villain in Paddington 3?



On Wednesday, amid another day of dreadful news, one dispatch of joy briefly flashed through the social media sky when representatives of StudioCanal confirmed that “Paddington 3” was in active development. Glory hallelujah. Details were scarce, of course, at this early stage, and so naturally people wondered who might play the third movie’s requisite villain. That will be a high bar to clear. Nicole Kidman, after all, might have been the villain in the first “Paddington”, not the latest James Bond exercise, but she nevertheless played the best Bond villain since Jaws. In “Paddington 2”, meanwhile, as egomaniacal actor Phoenix Buchanan, Hugh Grant did the impossible and one-upped her eminence. That’s why one person on social media who suggested “Paddington 3” not have a villain at all might be on to something; you not be able to reach higher so maybe you could focus on interior conflict, rather than exterior. But that would ruin this post. And besides, a “Paddington 3” baddie is essential. 

A few possibilities: 


Richard E. Grant. If you want to cash in on the last vestiges of that “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” momentum. Just make sure you don’t suck out all his arch merriment a la “Th Rise of Skywalker.”


Emma Thompson. Perhaps the only way you could reach higher than Hugh Grant? Maybe she is an evil scientist looking for Peruvian Bear DNA for a Talking Bear Theme Park?


Sean Bean. I can’t stop imagining the grave commitment Bean would bring to his scenes opposite a CGI bear. [Circling Paddington tied to a chair.] “You know, Paddington, we’re not so different, you and I.” 


Ralph Fiennes. If you sand the edges off his villainous “In Bruges” turn by filtering it through the elegant if high-strung playfulness of “Hail Caesar’s” Laurence Laurentz, you might have something. 


Rachel Weisz. You toss that scene in “Runaway Jury” where she’s chewing on a pen and taunting Gene Hackman in a blender with Penelope from “The Brothers Bloom” and Sarah Churchill from “The Favourite” and then sit back and watch as she chews her way through the screen.


Timothy Spall. As the owner of a 300-year old pub with a no-music policy, Spall is vexed by an unlikely pub that opens next door, run by Paddington, of course, where that 5-piece Calypso group from “Paddington 2” becomes the house band and Paddington serves a jazzed up Marmalade IPA that is all the rage of the kiddos. 


Gina Bellman. In the end, I think this is the way to go, though StudioCanal is taking no advice from me. You do not try and go higher after you have already played The Stones and then The Beatles on the mix tape. No, you circumvent expectations by dialing it back, by playing some Michelle Shocked or some Ani D. Give Bellman the movie role she has always deserved.