' ' Cinema Romantico

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Ray of Light


My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife showed me “Funny Face” for the first time last week. I retain the right to review the movie in full at some point in the future, though I will say it does not completely work, significantly falling off in the second half, partially undone by the fact that despite its two legendary lead performers they simply have no romantic chemistry whatsoever, proof positive that the greats can’t fake it. Not that such critiques matter. The stuff here that’s good is so good it’ll melt your face off, stuff like the “Funny Face” scene itself, though not the actual number, not quite, more the moment just before Audrey Hepburn as the bookish Jo Stockton begins singing with the debonair photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire).

Standing in the latter’s dark room, Jo leans against the wall and sighs “How could I be a model,” one of those immaculate, peerless Hepburn line readings where she stretches out the first syllable on the last word, rendering it “moooodel”, like it’s some distant phrase she’s trying to sound out. “I have no illusions about my looks,” she continues. “I think my face is funny.” Her face is not really funny, of course, duh. In fact, the funniest thing in the whole movie (and I mean that as a compliment) is that she says this while the movie literally frames her like the Movie Star she is. 

Heavens to murgatroyd. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Dreaming of Going to the Movies Part II


My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife was out of town the last week of February and I intended that Sunday to catch a matinee of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” Alas, I lazed my morning away, sleeping too late, drinking coffee too long. “I can just watch a movie at home,” I thought. And I did. That, I have come to realize, was my last chance to see a movie at the theater in 2020 and I gave it up to stream something. All I do now is stream movies. It’s funny, sort of, if you had asked off the cuff in 2020 what filmmaker I might risk my life for in order to see his/her new movie, it’s likely I would have said Kelly Reichardt, or Sofia Coppola. But “First Cow” hit theaters two days after March 11 and “On the Rocks” was just recently showing in theaters, ahead of Chicago’s latest stay at home advisory. I didn’t risk my life for either of them.

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A few weeks back, the Washington Post’s Megan McArdle wrote a column warning us to be prepared to say goodbye to movie theaters. She shepherded us through the usual streaming-era apprehensions about the industry being on the brink before suggesting that even if some movie chains keep kicking as a vaccine is found and produced and distributed, statistics suggesting significant portions of the populace might refrain from taking it based on, I dunno, the sage advice of a relative’s Facebook meme? McArdle wondered, then, if for the foreseeable future movie-going was worth the risk? Pivoting off her piece, Will Leitch suggested that it was not, even if, as some studies have shown, no COVID cases have been traced to a movie theater. But the fear, Leitch wrote, was more than enough. McArdle’s Post colleague, Sonny Bunch, sounding an awful lot like our Carnival Barker-in-Chief espousing some mind over matter bunkum, claimed that fear is exactly what’s killing movie theaters. Technically, he might be right. But why it’s up to us to take a needless risk for an industry that long ago yoked itself to nothing but tentpoles in a country where the (current) leadership has shrugged and left us all on our own, who knows. 

At the New York Times, A.O. Scott proffered his own State of the Cinema piece, wondering if we would even want to return to the movies when all this is over. His arguments stemmed from the streaming age, too, combined with a general audience indifference to those pre-show messages of no talking and no cellphones, etc., in some ways foreshadowing the current civil liberties tumult that is doing no favors in eradicating COVID. Movie-going has its annoyances, granted, but, gees, there are few things I have missed during the Pandemic like going to the movies. Even if the seats are dusty, the projection is off, the audience members talkative, it’s easier to disappear into a movie in the darkness of the theater then it is at home, no matter how disciplined I am in hiding my phone in the other room or telling myself beforehand not to let everyday distractions distract. I enjoyed watching “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” on my teensy seatback screen on a flight home from Berlin wedged into a middle seat, I truly did, but that couldn’t compare to watching it in my neighborhood theater on opening night, surrounded by so many like-minded folks, three-fourths of the way into my Daisy Cutter when Ethan Hunt HALO jumped into the club and I smiled so wide I felt like I was going to burst. In July, when Tom Ley, Editor-in-Chief of Defector, Tweeted that the last time he was truly, 100-percent happy was watching “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” for the first time, I knew exactly what he meant. 

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I’ve been having dreams lately about going to the movies. Well, not going to the movies, really, but wanting to go to the movies. You kids, you young ruffians probably don’t remember this but once upon a time to see when a movie was playing you had to check the times for various theaters in your newspaper. If you didn’t subscribe to the paper, which I sometimes didn’t, then you had to go buy one. I’ve been nostalgic for those movie times, lately, surfing through old Google images of them, like the one above. (Shout-out to some extinct movie theaters from my hometown - plus, Raul’s!) And maybe because I’ve been Googling them, I’ve been dreaming about them too. 

In the dream, I go out, early in the morning on a Friday, excited to see what movies are opening, and pick up a paper from a vending machine on the corner. I bring it home and, over coffee, flip to the movie times. But I keep flipping and flipping and it’s just blank page after blank page. There are no showtimes. No movies are playing. 

Monday, November 23, 2020

The Trial of the Chicago 7

It makes sense that Netflix’s dramatization of seven prominent counterculture members (and Black Panther Bobby Seale) being tried for inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention would be both written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. After all, Sorkin wrote the screenplay for “A Few Good Men” and “The Social Network”, the former turning on a military trial and the latter pivoting off two depositions.  If “A Few Good Men”, however, proffered a garden variety argument about right and wrong, it was also a true crackerjack entertainment, so eminently watchable it seems to be running on cable TV 24-7 while “The Social Network” stood out by lingering in moral grey areas. In “The Trial of The Chicago 7”, on the other hand, both written and directed by Sorkin, his patented monologues, pithy conversations and bleeding heart take all the piss out of the true story. There is nothing wrong, of course, with utilizing the medium of the flickering myth to reimagine truth. But rather than rendering a counter myth, a la Oliver Stone’s “JFK”, Sorkin is essentially transforming the Chicago 7 into his own mouthpiece, subsuming their radical politics in the name of something superficial. 


“The Trial of The Chicago 7” opens with a whoosh by bringing its myriad players onto the stage at once in advance of their anti-war demonstrations in Chicago at the DNC. Rather, however, than cutting straight to the riots, which once unveiled are rendered in too stagy a manner, isolating individual moments, to convey the true power of the mob, Sorkin flashes forward to the trial’s beginning before flashing back to the various events resulting in the court case. Though members of the 7, especially Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), sought to create a courtroom spectacle, and though Sorkin’s dialogue demonstrates sympathy with the defendants, his taste proves more in line with the horn-rimmed glasses and conservatism of the prosecutor, Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). 

Spielbergian soft light pouring through the windows gives the proceedings a ring of stateliness that unintentionally dulls the flower power, the latter further compromised in the movie’s penchant for awards-beckoning close-ups and swelling orchestral music rather than subversive pop hits of era, a quaint aesthetic that feels more true to a John Grisham adaptation than how a fellow beatnik like, say, the late Hal Ashby might have conveyed this material. If only. The actors portraying the 7, in addition to Mark Rylance as their attorney William Kunstler, are uniformly sound in so much as they ably embody the distinct trait afforded them in the screenplay. But no actor manages, or is allowed the necessary room to, sculpt a true character, innately evoking the grounds for that trait. 

Presiding Judge Julius Hoffman, meanwhile, may well have been a single dimensional real-life life person but as played by Frank Langella in low-angled shots looking up at him smug and self-impressed in doling out count after count of contempt of court he comes across less like a hanging judge than a version of his reactionary White House Chief of Staff from “Dave.” In the moment when Hoffman, orders Black Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), in Chicago for entirely different reasons that day and without a lawyer of his own, beaten and then gagged, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” briefly threatens to ignite. History, alas, dictates that Seal then be removed from the proceedings, emblematic not so much of how he tracked a different line than his fellow defendants than how his incendiary Black Panther politics are simply too much for a two-dimensional portrayal of good & evil to contain.


Ultimately the real drama is found in the relationship between the 7’s most most prominent members: Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Abbie Hoffman. Hayden, founder of the Students for Democratic Society and co-author of the Port Huron Statement, treats the legal proceedings with respect in hopes of currying a fair trial while Hoffman, colorful founder of the Yippies, transforms the trial into a mockery by way of making it into a show. Unlike “The Social Network, however, which turned in part on the distinct push and pull between Eduardo Saverin’s rose-colored viewpoint and the ruthlessness of Mark Zuckerberg, Hayden and Hoffman do not escalate their dramatic back and forth so much as find a middle ground, pledging belief in a system they ostensibly are antagonizing, oddly, insultingly reducing the legacy of the Chicago 7 to compromised mush. 

Friday, November 20, 2020

Friday's Old Fashioned: Lost in America (1985)

As “Lost in America” opens, David and Linda Howard (Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty) are about to take their upper middle class lifestyle to the next level by moving into bigger home on the heels of David’s forthcoming promotion. The camera glides through their current house, lingering over various moving boxes. “It’s all just stuff,” as Lester Burnham once excoriated in “American Beauty”, another movie of middle class woe. Of course, that 1999 film found reason to hope, even if finding it in the strangest of places, ending with something like a mystical ascent to peace of mind by getting out. “Lost in America”, on the other hand, not only knows there is no getting out but that complaining about where you are is poor form. David isn’t even asleep as “Lost in America” opens; he’s literally wide awake, lying in bed and openly wondering if this new home and new position will make him feel complete. His air suggests he already knows it won’t and yet is unsure what else someone in his position is supposed to do. The next morning, when he phones a Mercedes dealer, weighing whether to buy one with his expectant salary increase, he’s almost trying to talk himself out of it. He knows the car would merely be a status symbol but is inexorably drawn toward it nonetheless, epitomizing the tractor beam of corporate America, living for the future, as David says, eternally fretting the present is good enough. 


That’s not to suggest that Brooks the director views Brooks the character as some kind of tragic figure. If anything, David is a privileged yutz who doesn’t realize how good he’s got it, brought home in the film’s inciting incident when he doesn’t get the promotion and quits. “Only in a movie by Brooks would the hero quit to protest a ‘lateral transfer’ to New York,” the esteemed Roger Ebert wrote. “There’s something intrinsically comic about that: He’s taking a stand, all right, but it’s a narcissistic one.” Indeed, in the aftermath of quitting his job, David invades, more or less, his wife’s office and asks – nay, demands – that she quit too, hardly giving her the space to think it over for herself, summarized in that patented incessant Brooks prattle and Hagerty’s just as patented fluster. That David works in advertising is spot-on given this scene, and so many others, where he essentially reduces his own sense of throwing caution to the wind to making a pitch, rendering his own rebellion as nothing more than a desperate sales job. Later, after he’s convinced Linda to cash in everything and hit the road in an RV, she loses it all in an all-night gambling bender, causing David to pitch the casino manager (Garry Marshall, deftly underplaying opposite Brooks’s classic kvetching) an opportunity to return their money as a PR stunt in nobility. The scene’s hysterical double meaning portrays the American Dream has a hapless bet against the bank and how a yuppie’s rebellion is still contingent on significant sums of money, both “Lost in America’s” funniest joke and its most piercing truth.

We do not see the actual sequence in which Linda loses their money, just the aftermath, where Hagerty’s zombie eyes feel as true to the moment as Brooks’s still-in-his-bathrobe confusion. That we don’t see the moment, however, also teases the possibility that Linda did it on purpose, hinted at in the inevitable argument over their suddenly being broke when she admonishes him that truly dropping out would mean truly having nothing rather than, in his term, a nest egg. David, however, cannot quite wrap his head around such truth, not even when they are reduced to begging for small jobs in a small Arizona town. In an interview with a job counselor (Art Frankel), David earnestly asks about executive positions, causing the counselor to just laugh hysterically, looking at the client across from him like nothing more than the button-down, faux-idealist he is, unable to survive even a few days outside his bubble. 


Brooks directed, of course, and so the movie mostly focuses on his character which isn’t really a problem until these closing sections. Well, not even a problem, really, so much as an opportunity missed. If David can barely conceal his self-pity, Hagerty plays these scenes with a palpable sense of enthusiasm, getting up early to make breakfast, watching aerobics on TV, even happily bringing her teenage boss at the fast food place where she lands work. If it teases the antithesis of David’s own empty self-realization, “Lost in America” leaves that idea hanging, never quite willing to compare his arrogant incredulity against her apparent newfound earnestness. Still, the denouement is side-splitting in its brevity, David and Linda surrendering to the charade and accepting that lateral transfer to New York, sucking it up and admitting that to get anywhere in America you better learn to eat shit. 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

An Ode to the Closing Credits


Recently on the news site Twitter dot com, the comedian Mike Birbiglia sent a social media open letter to streaming platforms, asking them to play the credits to movies since they are, after all, a part of the movies. The director Rian Johnson, whose Twitter spirit remains unbroken despite, I imagine, most of his time spent there getting DMs about his calculated destroying of so many childhoods, agreed: “Even beyond respect for the folks who worked on it, the credits are the cool down coming out of an ending, they’re part of a movie, and this shit with cutting them off or popping a “you might also like” thing up has got to stop.” You’re telling me. My observation is undoubtedly not new but the number of times My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife and I have tried, desperately, in the 10-second aftermath of some movie ending to stop the streaming platform from moving on to the next piece of content to consume only to come up just short is no less frustrating than galloping up the L platform steps only to have the train doors close in your face a split-second before pulling away. It’s like any time some stupid TV channel runs stupid advertisements over the closing credits of “Top Gun”, depriving us of seeing the actors’ names displayed over a clip of the character, an extra special kind of joyous culmination more movies should employ; “Logan Lucky” only could have been improved by going this route.

My first day on the job as a movie theater projectionist, the man in charge explained how to set the lighting cues for each film, ensuring that twenty or so seconds of darkness right after the movie ended precipitated the lights coming up just a bit which finally precipitated the lights coming all the way up. If logically I understood the progression, emotionally I never could quite square it, this notion of people needing light to flee before the movie was all the way over. There are infinite reasons I knew My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife was the only one for me, but chief among them was her desire to watch all of a movie’s closing credits. Boy, did that send my heart aflutter. 

Credits, after all, can be educational. Maybe some actor you don’t know thrilled you and you want to see who it was. Maybe the movie was set in Maine and you want to see if they really filmed in Maine or if Canada stood in for the 23rd state. Maybe the costume design impressed you and you want to see who was responsible for such solid work. Even Team ZAZ, the funnymen extraordinaire, knew outtakes could teach, utilizing their patented comedic credits for a little informative outreach.  


One of my earliest movie-going memories is “Ghostbusters.” Even now if you asked me to associate that comedy of paranormal investigators with an image or a phrase, I might say Sedgwick Hotel, if only because to my six-year old mind that whole experience was such a grand night out, a party in a movie theater. That’s why the closing credits were a party, underlined by the exploded marshmallow lining Sigourney’s Weaver’s head like a wedding crown, as if this was the reception. Ditto “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”, replaying scenes from the movie just finished behind its end credits, which was magically apropos to my 9-year old heart since all I wanted to do was stay in the theater and watch that one all over again. Stanley Tucci’s “The Impostors” turned the closing credits into one big party too, the entire cast literally dancing off the set to Louis Armstrong’s recording of “Skokiaan.” 

As the credits roll at the conclusion of “Michael Clayton”, on the other hand, and the eponymous law firm fixer takes a taxi ride after doing the right thing, the camera sticks with him in close-up for the duration, unspooling the end credits the whole way, impressively rendering it as a moment of double-layered reflection. The end credits of “Calvary” revisit every location where Father Lavelle and his daughter Fiona had a conversation, this time showing those places devoid of people, as if the problems and questions of faith of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans in the natural world. 



When “An Education” ended, totally unexpectedly (at least, to me) the familiar, wonderful warbling of Duffy appeared, singing her for-the-movie tune “Smoke Without Fire.” I was enraptured; it was like a show had broken out at no additional cost. It’s a reminder of how selecting a song for the closing credits can make or break you. See: “The Bourne Supremacy,” “Mistress America”, “Ocean’s Eleven.” 

Of course, most movie closing credits are not so creative and yet still entirely essential. As Johnson says, they are the cool down, an idea my main David Thomson also espoused years ago in the pages of Movieline, noting how at the end of “Million Dollar Baby”, everyone in his auditorium sat through to the end. This was out of respect for the names on the screen, sure, but also a way to recuperate, to dry their eyes and pull themselves together before heading out into the night. Perhaps the most people I can recall staying in their seats even as the credits rolled was “No Country For Old Men”, the wallop of “Wait, That Was The End?” prompting patrons to require a few extra minutes to come to terms. 

And that is why, even now, despite being overplayed and parodied to death, like the ratatouille transporting the food critic straight back to his childhood, whenever I hear Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”, I am transported back to the River Hills/Riviera (RIP) in Des Moines, Iowa on the afternoon of December 20, 1997 and the closing credits of “Titanic.” I had to sit through every name to find the strength to gather myself to haul myself out of my seat and up the aisle and, even then, I still felt as if I were staggering, not yet ready to reface anything as taxing as the rest of the day, never mind the rest of life.


As such, in the end, no closing credits experience as ever been more emblematic than “From Here to Eternity.” Because like most classic Hollywood cinema, “From Here to Eternity.” front-loaded all its credits; when it ended, it ended. And because I was watching at home, alone, when the screen blank and the room went silent and I realized I still needed time to recover, I thought to myself, distressed, “Where are the closing credits?!”

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The Ultimate American in Paris


“Emily in Paris”, the much-publicized new Netflix series from “The $treet” impresario Darren $tar, has been criticized in some quarters for both its absurd, simplistic portrayal of social media and predictable Parisian clichés. All of that, however, bothered me far less, if at all, than how a woman from the states – Emily (Lily Collins) – with her beachy waves and her corporate commandments [throws up in mouth] in tow comes to live in a European city – Paris – is so damn American. What’s more, though another character chastises her belief in fanciful American movies rather than movies that show life as it is, the personal side of “Emily in Paris” sticks to familiar American rom com banalities, all conveyed in typical Netflix non-subversion, busy as hell but congenial, refusing to challenge, refusing to make you think, even for a second, at all, just meant to be consumed like so many empty calories. None of this would even be problem, though, if the show itself knew this but $tar and his team still operate under the notion that Emily is falling under Paris’s sway when, in fact, she is both resisting attitudinal shifts in any real way and instead innately impressing her own American attitude on everyone around her. Get the hook, I kept wanting to say to Emily’s boss Sylvie (Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu).

I mean, you wanna make something about an American in Paris, make something about an American in Paris, but don’t feed me this horse hockey. And that, as it had to, got me to thinking about American in Paris movies. Who is the ultimate American in Paris?


No, not him.


Not them either. Too arty. 


Ah, that’s a little more like it. A wide-eyed Steve Buscemi in “Paris, je t'aime” who runs afoul of Parisian etiquette, not an Ugly American archetype so much as an American In Over His Head.


Greta Gerwig, meanwhile, as hapless Frances Halladay is too down in the dumps to enjoy her spontaneous Parisian getaway at all.


Still, Buscemi and Gerwig are on holiday and being on holiday...that’s not so American. No, Tom Cruise working in Paris in “Mission: Impossible – Fallout”, zooming his motorcycle through the scenic streets, oblivious to the architecture, nose to the action-adventure grindstone amid so many blissed out café dwellers, that’s pretty darn American.


But not quite as American as Sam (Robert DeNiro) in “Ronin.” Because Sam is not only in France on a job, he goes to the French Riviera and pretends to be a tourist in the name of getting that job done. Doing more work by pretending to have fun? That is as American as it gets.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The Sharks

Among the most famous movie opening scenes is undoubtedly “Jaws.” You know, comely young woman goes for a swim at dawn, gets eaten by shark, it’s terrifying. It’s not just the shark circling her from below, though, it’s the camera. Granted, Steven Spielberg is not the kind of director, I don’t think, to get consciously caught up in the notion of the Male Gaze, but this scene demonstrates how that Male Gaze is inherently prevalent in a man’s camera whether he’s conscious of it or not. In a sense, “The Sharks” turns that notion around. Not for nothing does it begin with its young Uruguayan protagonist, Rosina (Romina Bentancur), running down a seaside road, looking over her shoulder. She’s running away from her father, yes, but she may as well be running away from the camera itself. She reaches the ocean and steps a few feet out into the water. Her father stands on the shore, pleading for her to come back. She does but not before casting her eyes toward the sea, her arms drawn up against her, as if suggesting she does not want to be seen, as if sensing something is out there. As she wades back to shore, the camera picks up a dorsal fin emerging from the water. And though ensuing events suggest the sharks in these waters are real, the electronica music that explodes on the soundtrack at the brief glimpse of this fin seems to suggest otherwise, or at least suggest the tangible and metaphorical might blur into something else altogether.  


Rosina, we learn, was running away because she attacked her sister, leaving such a prominent scar around her sister’s eye that she’s wearing an eyepatch. Like many of the exact details in “The Sharks”, what caused this violent outburst remains unexplained, but when Rosina says she is sorry, the way in which Bentancur says it makes it difficult to believe her character means it. Rosina’s home life is noisy and cramped. Her father worries over money, her mother worries over a lack of running of water and trying to get a beauty salon up and running in their home. All of these details feel lived in but also beside the point, hardly making a mark on Rosina, introverted almost to the point of being incommunicative. Her clothes are markedly at odds with her sister’s, not so much boyish as nondescript, bulky shorts and tee shirts that virtually subsume her, like she doesn’t want herself to be seen. Director Lucía Garibaldi’s camera frequently underscores this idea in outdoor scenes, wide frames where Rosina can disappear amid the landscape, though at home the camera is frequently right in her face, blocking out everyone else as if they don’t matter. 

If Rosina’s fashion sense suggests a tamping down of her sexuality, she still possesses urges. Taking a landscaping job at her father’s behest, she becomes smitten with Joselo (Federico Morosini), a slightly older boy. Initially he reciprocates, though a scene in which they fool around takes a tawdry turn. Like the scenes at home, Garibaldi keeps the camera locked in close-up on Rosina’s face as Joselo pleasures himself just off screen, issuing her commands, the camera placement underlining how in this moment he literally reduces her to nothing more than an object of his gaze. And when he’s done, he’s essentially done with her. That the character treats Rosina halfway-politely in their subsequent scenes only fuels the heartbreak. 


As “The Sharks” progresses, the more the literal beasts fade into the background, as the locals quests to find them and kill them mostly occur offscreen while the purported slowdown of tourism is just mentioned, never shown. No, the real predator and prey becomes Rosina and Joselo, after he spurns her, a metaphor which works because it never becomes overwrought. Then again, Rosina’s state of mind as she messes with an unknowing Joselo is inscrutable almost to the point of frustration; you long for some insight into her state of mind. But Garibaldi is content to let her actions speak for themselves, which grow bolder and more deranged, culminating with a sequence on the beach and in the water that might make one ask how no one sees her, though that’s the point, her presence unnoticed when it’s not in the context of physical attractiveness. And the closing shot repeats the opening one, just flipped, with Rosina not running away but marching straight toward the camera, toward us. Ye been warned.