' Cinema Romantico

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Shark Steak Sandwich

One of the more underrated Movie Presidents is Jeff Bridges’s Jackson Evans in “The Contender” (2000). Forced to choose a replacement Vice President after the current VP has passed away, Evans settles on Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen, fire), a woman, obviously, which, obviously, unleashes the wrath of so many insecure white good ol’ boys in position of power. This leads to all manner of political machinations, with Illinois Congressman Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman) and President Evans playing what amounts to a high stakes game of governmental. “I’ll die before Shelly Runyon checkmates me,” says Evans, which is simply one of the best political movie lines you will ever hear, signaling that all these events on which the fate of the republic (and the free world) hinge are less about you and me and everyone else then settling personal beefs and demonstrating whose balls are brassiest.

Bridges plays this idea for all its worth, laying the charismatic smarm on thick, a guy who is in control and wants you to know he is in control. He demonstrates this control with food. Seriously. Anyone Evans invites up to the Oval Office is immediately met with a Presidential overture of food, not as a peace offering but as a “Look What I Can Do, Sparky” alert. We see this most memorably when President Evans takes a meeting with Delaware Congressman Reginald Webster (Christian Slater) who is part of Runyon’s Vice Presidential Confirmation Committee and who, like Runyon, is showing great resistance to Hanson. Before they dive into politics, however, President Evans shows off the impressive edible material in his hand.

Evans: “You know what this is? That’s a shark steak sandwich. Fucking shark steak. You want half?”
Webster: “Uh, no, thank you.”
Evans: “Are you a vegan? Had lunch?”
Webster: “Uh, no—”
Evans: “So you choose not to break bread with the President of the United States?”

So sure, Webster chooses to break bread with the President, taking half of the Commander-in-Chief’s shark steak sandwich, managing a small bite while Evans hovers with a “Mine Are Bigger” look on his face before they fall into conversation where Evans, in so many words, and quite a few more, tells Webster to back the fuck off his gonna-be VP. And all the while that shark steak sandwich lingers like a culinary threat.

I thought of this when Chris Christie revealed that President Trump, hosting the New Jersey Governor for dinner at the White House on Tuesday, ordered for Christie, explaining they would both be having the meatloaf. I liked imagining Trump as a variation of Evans, using the White House Chef as a kind of negotiating tool, lording his position with ground meat. Going further, I like imagining Trump, pettiest of the petty, doing this all the time, ordering the New York strip steaks of foreign dignarities and bootlicking congressmen well done because “everyone prefers their steak well done, as you know”, and then cancelling the Congressman’s order of a Malbec for a Diet Coke instead because “Diet Coke goes very well with steak, believe me.”

Friday, February 17, 2017

keira knightley wearing a hat (and wearing a scarf)

It was just announced that “Love Actually”, the Richard Curtis cinematic sugar plum fairy from 2003 that tends to turn swaths of movie lovers into the Montagues and the Capulets, trading insults and drawing swords, would be getting the sequel treatment – the short sequel treatment, that is. This got many people wondering many different things, of course, but it got Cinema Romantico wondering if Keira Knightley would be wearing a hat in this sequel because Cinema Romantico has famously contended that Keira Knightley’s Hat in “Love Actually” could engender world peace if only people would stop screaming for five seconds about how much they abhor empty rom com calories and just……look. So I asked on the various platforms of the social media interwebs, will Keira wear a hat?

My friend Daryl suggested that perhaps Keira would not wear a hat and that I, a completely impartial critic who is simultaneously totally biased in Keira’s favor, would fall all over myself to praise this tactical costume change-up, probably calling it something like, say, a mixture of transplendent and stupendous – call it, stupsplendentous. This wouldn’t be inaccurate. But the thing is, for all this blog’s Keira Knightley In Hats flattery, we are just as aware of how she pretty much slays any form of clothing like a silver screen Kate Middleton, just as she slays in any sort of role period because Keira is transformational.

Keira, see, does not figuratively (literally) shapeshift like Day-Lewis. No, she has a timeless quality that allows her to function equally brilliantly in period pieces and modern fare. This is why Cecilia Tallis’s emotional repression that eventually gives way is strikingly akin to Joanna Reed’s, just as I swear, if you look close, Elizabeth Benet and Gretta James possess the same sort of sunny ferocity. And though that might make it sound like her performances across the eras are the same, she provides distinctive shading to each character to set them apart, like Cecilia passionately plunging ahead and Joanna cautiously easing forward. That shading, of course, extends just as ably to costuming, where Keira can cycle through all manner of wardrobe choices, past or present, while making each one not merely believable but so damn fetch.

For instance...

Keira Knightley in a hat.

Keira Knightley in a scarf.

I just blew your mind.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

12 Times Oscar Got It Unequivocally Right

It's the heart of Academy Award season, that dangerous ground between nominations and the awards themselves, when the social media knives come out and everything is absolutely awful no matter how great, good, mostly good, or, like, "nice, but not really getting yourself all in a lather about" it might have been in reality. My least favorite part of Academy Awards season is the inevitable mudslide of 10 Times Oscar Got It Wrong lists, which sometimes are 5 times, or 15 times, or 25 times, whatever the WE NEED CLICKS!!! editors demand. I hate those lists. I hate, hate, hate them. How about all those times Oscar did it get right? Like, you know, these...

12 Times Oscar Got It Unequivocally Right

Kate Winslet, Best Actress for The Reader (2009)

Like this list would start anywhere else.

Van Heflin, Best Supporting Actor for Johnny Eager (1942) 

Like William Powell of "The Thin Man" crossed with Christopher Plummer of "Star Trek VI" crossed with Heather Davis of "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" and on sedatives scored from the Palm Springs black market, this is one of the great turns no one ever talks about. 

Jack Lemmon, Best Actor for Save the Tiger (1974)  

Lemmon probably deserved Best Actor for something else, like "The Apartment", or "Some Like It Hot", but got it for this instead, which was a cosmic squaring for what was owed, which was fine, even if it did prevent Al Pacino for earning the statue on the basis of "Serpico."

Al Pacino, Best Actor for Scent of a Woman (1993) 

But the cosmos squared with Pacino a couple decades later when it gave him the Best Actor for "Scent of a Woman" even though performatively speaking Denzel Washington deserved Best Actor for "Malcolm X."

Denzel Washington, Best Actor for Training Day (2002) 

But the cosmos squared with Washington a decade after that. See how this works?

Ingrid Bergman, Best Supporting Actress for Murder on the Orient Express (1975) 

Some actors richly deserve an Oscar, a few special ones deserve a couple Oscars, and a few really, really special ones deserve an Oscar trio. Ingrid Bergman deserved the trio. Whatever the hell she got the third one for is fine with me.

Marcia Gay Harden, Best Supporting Actress for Pollock (2001)

Kate Hudson in "Almost Famous", sure, of course, naturally, I would have voted for her too. But then, Kate Hudson is Penny Lane and Marcia Gay Harden is the descendant of a norse goddess who slays dragons. So......

Marisa Tomei, Best Supporting Actress for My Cousin Vinny (1993) 

With each passing year the more I become convinced, per Cinema Romantycs, an extraordinarily in-depth empirical analysis of the empyrean that takes into account qualitative performability while including all inherent emotional biases, that this is the greatest performance of all time.

Donna Reed, Best Supporting Actress for From Here to Eternity (1954) 

Don't come at me, bro. Do not come at me on this one. If you do then, to quote Melissa McCarthy in "The Heat", "put your head in the door and I’ll slam it about 157,000 fucking times."

Humphrey Bogart, Best Actor for The African Queen (1952)

Take your He Got It For The Wrong Movie rubbish movie somwhere else. Whatever movie Bogart got his Oscar for is the right movie and anything else is just gaseous listicle excrement.

Jennifer Lawrence, Best Actress for Silver Linings Playbook (2013)

I'm telling you right now, if this performance starts showing up on 10 Times Oscar Got It Wrong lists 10 years from now then I am coming for you, content creators. Do you hear me?! I am putting cherry bombs in your goddam content management systems! YOU WILL ALL HAVE TO RECKON WITH ME!!!

Nicole Kidman, Best Actress for The Hours (2003)

Like this list would end anywhere else.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Hidden Figures

Theodore Melfi’s “Hidden Figures” opens on the side of a rural Virginia road in the early 1960s where the car carrying three African-Women – Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson’s (Janelle Monáe) – has broken down and left them stranded. Well, not stranded; Dorothy fixes the problem. Still, a white state trooper shows up, towering and suspicious. Menace of a family-friendly variety is in the air. But then the women explain they are on their way to work at nearby Langley, a division of NASA where they, and other black women, at the dawn of IBM, essentially function as human computers, tasked with checking the myriad calculations of NASA higher-ups. Seeing as how this is the midst America’s volatile space race with the dastardly Soviets, the trooper suddenly changes his tune. He gives them an escort that goes so fast the women have to gun the engine to keep up, leading Mary to exclaim “Three negro women are chasing a white police officer down the highway in Hampton, Virginia, 1961! Ladies, that there is a God-ordained miracle!”

This line is indicative of the film’s frustrating tendency to unnecessarily addend images with obvious slogans, yet the sequence still cuts to the heart of these “Hidden Figures.” After all, this is segregationist America, meaning that once they arrive at Langley, Katherine, Dorothy and Mary are tucked away in a cramped coloreds only room, suggesting a nation that knows these African-American women are indispensable even if it still is not willing to sit in the same room as them. Help our cause, in other words, but don’t be a part of it, a harsh truth of a time that really is not all that long ago in American history. It might have been nice for Melfi to truly honor that harsh truth with a harsher tone rather than the paint by numbers prestige picture gloss he opts for instead, which left me wishing for a better movie even if I couldn’t help but admire how some of the rote clichés he peddles feel intentionately transgressive, like he’s telling white people it’s our turn to be tokens of the plot.

Though Henson, Spencer and Monáe function as a trio with considerably sardonic charisma, they spend much of the movie apart, each one locked into a specific plot. Mary yearns to become an engineer, which requires taking classes that accept neither blacks nor women, which leads to a courtroom scene that Monáe nails, neatly playing it not as an appeal to the Judge’s humanity but to the Judge’s potential legacy, which turns a moment of traditional cinematic speechifying into something slyly comical. Dorothy, meanwhile, yearns to be made a supervisor, given that she is doing supervisor’s work simply without the title, though her supervisor, Mrs. Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) continually deflects this request because, you know, rules and all that. The tension between these two characters is wonderfully played by Spencer, who maintains such quiet yet tired dignity, and Dunst, who cuts straight to that sort of baked-in racism, like she has been societally programmed since birth to register disgust and/or shock at the mere presence of a black person.

The main story, however, belongs to Katherine who becomes part of the Space Task Group, working so hard to get American capsules beyond Earth, led by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), the kind of guy so consumed by his work that you can never quite tell if he really does see color or not. The others do, of course, and if Melfi doesn’t much burn up the screen with inventive visuals, he at least does a nifty job allowing Katherine to truly drown in these cavernous spaces of so many buzzcut white men in short-sleeve white dress shirts. Chief among them is Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), whose work Katherine is tasked with proofreading and whose work never sees flawless. You have half a mind to wonder what he's even doing working here, except it's rather evident the Stafford character is payback for the sort of patronizing parts blacks have been made to play for a century. Parsons, to his credit, sits there and takes it.

Katherine also gets a subplot in the form of a courtship and marriage to an army colonel named Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), which is so humdrum you wish the film would have cut it altogether. Oddly enough, the space flight sequences involving Alan Shepard and then Gus Grissom and John Glenn feel tangential too. Sure, Katherine and the rest of these women help these men achieve that space flight, but we have seen this derring-do rendered in so many movies before that ending a movie deliberately titled “Hidden Figures” with a figure as familiar as John Glenn plays all wrong, marking the first orbiting of the Earth in this context as perfunctory. No, the movie would have done better to conclude a moment earlier, not up in the sky but down on the ground, giving the heroine a true heroine moment. Heaven knows she’d earned it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Hacksaw Ridge

Mel Gibson’s throttling epic “Hacksaw Ridge” is based on the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a stringent Seventh Day Adventist who, despite his unwavering pacifism, joined the U.S. Army in the last days of WWII as a combat medic. And in the no holds barred savagery that Gibson so often prefers as director, he seems intent on rendering all of Desmond’s life as some sort of pacifistic test. We see this straight away in the introduction of the adult Desmond, who is working in the church while his mom oversees the choir, only to rush outside and save the day when a stranger severs an artery working under his car. This sort of sudden violence seems to follow Desmond everywhere. Why even when he takes his future wife Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) out for a date, he almost gets hit by a passing car. It’s as if Gibson cannot go more than a couple minutes without in some way subjugating Desmond to inherent danger of the universe.

This distaste for violence is tied to two defining events, one that opens the film, one seen later in flashback. First, young Desmond gets in a fight with his younger brother, nearly taking his life, chastised by his father, Tom (Hugo Weaving), a drunk and a lout, the same father that will later threaten his wife (Rachel Griffiths) which leads Desmond to protect his mother by putting a gun in dad’s face and threatening to pull the trigger. He doesn’t, and when he doesn’t, he finds his eyes drawn to a poster on the wall bearing The Ten Commandments, his eyes drifting toward “Thou Shalt Not Kill”, and Gibson lets the camera linger on that “Thou Shalt Not Kill” for a long time, burrowing its directive into Desmond. Adult Desmond carries his Bible with him everywhere, though we never really see him open that Bible, or even use it to minister, or even platitudinally quote from it, like The Sixth Commandment is all he really needs. Even at points in the concluding act at the titular battle, when he is made to ask What God Wants Of Him, it never quite comes off, because Gibson renders the character of Desmond as so uncomplicatedly holy.

Garfield’s performance matches that lack of complication. He plays the part with an unremitting folksiness, almost seeming to be in some sort of down home haze in the early scenes in Virginia. When he meets Dorothy at the hospital where she works, the gruesome injuries surrounding him only partially seem to register, as he dissolves into a sudden of fog. Later, when he squires her to a movie, he ignores the movie to just sort of sit and stare at her instead. Honestly, it’s a little creepy. This seems like a set-up for when he enlists as a conscientious objector, which turns him into an outcast amongst the men in his unit, who bully him and beat him up in the hopes that he will quit. It seems like a set-up because we assume here, in the thick of boot camp, his faith will be tested. But it isn’t, not really, because he weathers all this, even an attempt to court martial him, with easygoing grace. Neither Garfield nor Gibson plant in Desmond even the slightest seed of doubt; he just rolls with it. There is a surprising lack of drama to these scenes, simply affirmation of what we already know will transpire. I kept hoping R. Lee Ermey of “Full Metal Jacket”, or even Viggo Mortensen of “G.I. Jane”* (*deep cut) would tag team in for Vince Vaughn’s drill sergeant to spice things up.

The film’s enormous wrap-up, chronicling the Battle of Okinawa, is, as is Gibson’s modus operandi, an unrelenting assault of carnage. Not the 1940s WWII movies kind of carnage, where rows and rows of extras just fall down, but gore of a ferociously insistent kind that will likely precipitate the need to look away. This highly stylized violence makes sense as a contrast to Desmond’s nonviolence, yet Desmond’s nonviolence comes across oddly unmoved by so much blood and guts. As he goes about saving wounded soldier after wounded soldier, most American but even a few Japanese, this never feels like any sort of test for his beliefs. He feels like a predestined hero going through the dramatic motions, emblemized in the inevitable Christ imagery that Gibson just can’t help but render him in. But unlike Christ, Desmond is suffering and overcoming no crisis of faith; he is simply ascending to action movie sainthood.

Monday, February 13, 2017


Garth Davis’s “Lion” is based on the true life story of Indian Saroo Brierly, who, at the age of 5, inadvertently wound up on a decommissioned train that carried him all the way from his poor village in Central India to Calcutta, nearly a thousand miles away, where he survived on the street until he was taken to an orphanage before re-settling with adoptive parents in Tasmania. It was there, twenty-five years later, that he initiated a search for his biological family, eventually finding them in one those unbelievable tear-jerking, heartwarming tales tailor-made for awards bait on the silver screen.

Certain elements of “Lion” are assuredly awards bait-y, because the Weinstein’s would not have put their producing muscle behind it otherwise, like the over-insistent piano score desperate to ramp up your emotion when so often the inherent emotions of the scene themselves would have managed the trick all on their own. The concluding sequence, meanwhile, recounting the poignant reunion of son and mother cannot help but involve the entire village. Perhaps that’s the way it really happened, but in the film’s overly sentimental staging it hews a little too closely to Colin Firth’s heroically cornball concluding quest in “Love Actually.” Still, despite its occasional indulgences, “Lion” is never overly claptrap-py, unafraid to linger in the dark even if you can’t help but wish for it to have a little more interest in psychologically unpacking what plunges its main character into the darkness in the first place.

The early sequences of five year old Saroo, played by Sunny Panwar, at home in his village, trapped on the train and lost in Calcutta, get by predominantly on Panwar’s striking big eyes. Initially those eyes are filled with wonder and envy for his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), in whose company he primarily remains. In the sequences after he and his brother get separated, however, that wonder is replaced not so much with fear as a kind of quiet awe for the wonders of the big world, occasionally replaced by suspicion, such as when a woman briefly takes him in. This is the closest “Lion” truly gets to rendering Saroo as being in peril, preferring to stick closer to more of a storybook aesthetic, where all these news sights and sounds becomes strangely moving.

Frankly, it is easy to envision an entire movie where Saroo fends for himself in Calcutta, just as a fairly clever filmmaker might have rendered an entire film simply out of Saroo’s train ride, just as another filmmaker might have found a whole movie in Saroo being raised by his foster parents, Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham) Brierly, which is complicated when they adopt a second child, Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), who struggles to adjust and lash out. In particular, Saroo’s new home life is a storyline that is condensed, principally by necessity, moving him in, establishing the particulars and then flashing forward twenty years, where Dev Patel takes the acting baton from Pawar.

John Brierly is a nonentity but Sue is afforded some depth, particularly in the rich performance of Kidman who can pack all the hurt and neuroses of bringing up the problematic Mantosh into a single laugh that she deliberately stifles with a sip of wine. Eventually she is afforded an entire monologue, delivered to Saroo, about what led her to adopt rather than have children. It relates to a vision and Kidman has Sue delicately waver between something like a true believer and being off her rocker, never betraying one or the other because Kidman makes both true at once.

If this gives a window into her motivation, the motivation for the movie’s foremost hook, Saroo wanting to locate his real family, is oddly lacking. Davis gives it the flashback treatment, tying it back to a Proustian moment in which Saroo happens upon some hot peppers at a dinner party that relate directly to his youth. This Proustian moment is enough to suddenly raise his desire to re-engage with the past, yet the darkness he subsequently plunges into as he ignites the search remains frustratingly unexplored, limited to obvious visual cues like Saroo’s longer hair and shots of him sleeping on his sofa or staring forlornly out the window. And just like his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) continually tries wresting from him exactly what he's feeling only to get no answers, the movie cannot really provide them and Patel cannot either.

No, it is less about the emotions involved with trying to find his family then simply the act of trying to find his family, which he does with a massive Google Earth assist, narrative-excused product placement, suspense rather than psychology. “Lion” is very much about the journey, but sometimes it seems overly focused on the destination.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Enemy Below (1957)

“The Enemy Below” does not exactly get up and go, not in the precise term of the meaning, taking several sequences to establish life aboard the American destroyer USS Haynes in the midst of WWII, before then getting up and going. And once it goes, boy, does it go, non-stop, with the destroyer squaring off against a U-Boat, the two ships and the two captains desperately trying to get the drop on the other, where the slightest miscalculation could yield doom. That's not to say that “The Enemy Below”, once it gets going, is mindless either. Far from it, as director Dick Powell takes great care to impart a few ideas about what war means, or what war does not mean.

Robert Mitchum is Lt. Commander Murrell, who has just been placed in charge of the USS Haynes, which makes the men a little antsy, wondering what this guy is all about, a means to establish onboard conflict, or thereabouts. But this, frankly, is more or less forgotten about the minute Murrell strolls on camera when the U-Boat is spotted. Mitchum, after all, is Mitchum, which is to say he oozes laconic command, disinterested and engaged at once, possessing a peerless ability to just sort of show up and through his deep voice and hard-nosed manner instantly establish that, yeah, he’s been around the block. It’s no wonder his men fall in line almost immediately, especially when he displays a few keen tactical moves to get the upper hand on their German enemies beneath the sea.

The titular enemy below, meanwhile, is Kapitän von Stolberg (Curd Jürgens), a wily old fox who is just desperately trying to get home. In the manner of the U-Boat's intention as an underwater surprise, we are not really introduced to von Stolberg, not exactly, as he just sort of appears in the midst of captaining his vessel as soon as they show up on American radar. Then, however, Powell peels back to establish that while von Stolberg is at the disposal of the Nazis, he is not necessarily a sympathizer, evinced in a speech to his second in command but, even better, in a moment when some too eager subordinate is seen reading Mein Kampf and von Stolberg can only shake his head.

This was, after all, 1957, not 1942 and so merely delivering a propagandist tale of Nazi buffoons was no longer strictly necessary. Indeed, “The Enemy Below” becomes something else. Conspicuously no one else is ever seen in “The Enemy Below.” Hitler and Roosevelt could not be further away. It is just the crew of the Haynes and the crew of the U-Boat. More to the point, it just Murrell and von Stolberg, underscored by how Powell in simply cutting back and forth between close-ups of each Captain as if they really are in one another’s heads. Battles may begin in the name of something bigger, and after these battles over the result may be far-reaching, but in the moment, it is merely boat v boat, winners live and losers die. Not that everyone dies here, which is how “The Enemy Below” becomes ennobling. Your enemy may not be your friend, but that does not necessarily mean he’s not human.