' ' Cinema Romantico

Friday, April 16, 2021

Friday's Old Fashioned: California Split (1975)

“Jurassic Park” is among my seminal moviegoing moments. No, no, not because of the dinosaurs or the vibrating water cup; because of the scene where you see two conversations - one between Sam Neill and Bob Peck, one between Laura Dern and Richard Attenborough - happening simultaneously on opposite sides of the frame. That quietly blew my youthful mind. And just imagine how much my mind was blown when I finally got around to Robert Altman, celebrated purveyor of overlapping dialogue, like at at the beginning of “California Split”, where the clatter of chips and chatter of card-players in a Golden State poker hall is as true an evocation of a gambling den’s noisy ambiance as you are likely to find. And yet, for such distinct audio pandemonium, what ultimately stands out is the voice of Elliot Gould, playing professional gambler and/or gambling addict (is there a difference?) Charlie Waters, who strolls through the joint while waiting his turn to play, and up to a How to Play poker video that he talks right over the top of, to himself, like he can’t help it, epitomizing how despite “California Split’s” famed 8-track recording, it is Charlie’s voice that stands out, running roughshod over everyone, a conversational eddy just running round and round, waiting to pull you in. It pulls in Bill Denny (George Segal). Shuffling through the same poker hall as if he is looking for someone to talk to but can’t bring himself to say something to someone, he comes on like Charlie’s sheepish opposite. But when he eventually winds up playing at Charlie’s table, he covers for Gould’s loquacious cad when he cheats. This is crucial. In another movie, they would have been cheating together; here, the cheating brings them together. In other words, it’s their Meet Cute.

They wind up having a few drinks, getting pummeled by the same guy, Lew (Edward Walsh, a convincing sweaty mess), they bilk at the poker hall, arrested, thrown in jail, and then bailed out the next morning by Charlie’s lady friend, Barbara (Ann Prentiss), who shares a place with him as well as her fellow call girl, Susan (Gwen Welles). From here, “California Split” settles into a shambling groove, evoking the life of betting junkies, looking for another fix in the form of a bet to place, anything counts, even a pickup basketball game, where Charlie sort of suggests the haggard Herman Blume of “Rushmore” if that little kid’s shot he suddenly blocks was not simply mean-spiritedness but the product of some ludicrous wager. Every bet won yields a celebration, a cycle of instant gratification, nights bleeding into days and back into nights. Indeed, at Charlie’s place the morning after spending the night in the clink, the two men eat cereal and drink beer, and a later scene in which Bill leaves some gambling joint at some unknown hour, the low sun could be dusk or dawn, who knows. Charlies does not even appear to have a job, wandering from poker halls to the racing track. Bill at least has a job, at a magazine, though it’s vaguely defined, and when he’s in the office, he sits at his desk in something like I-Would-Rather-Be-At-The-Track anguish, a sardonic twist on the Time Is Money platitude.

Altman sees Barbara and Gwen with empathy, but they are there more as mirrors of Charlie and Bill, similar in their differing temperaments and also highlighting their unspoken but nevertheless emergent kind of bromance. When Charlie up and splits for Mexico, leaving Bill in the dark about his whereabouts, the latter turns up at Charlie’s house anyway, moping around, looking for companionship. Susan reciprocates. And when Bill tells her he has no money to acquire her, ahem, services, she tells him she doesn’t want any, that this is different, that she has feelings for him, the rare moment in “California Split” that is not transactional. As such, it’s doomed to failure. Barbara interrupts them by unexpectedly returning home and Bill pulls away, vanishing into the night. He is only reinvigorated when Charlie returns, though Bill reams him out first, like a spurned lover, which Segal renders with true heartbreak. It is heartbreak made all the more ridiculous when Charlie talks him down by playing piccolo, of all things, an incredible moment where Segal’s eruption of laughter, framed in close-up, feels less like relief than manic desperation with a touch of relief. 

Like most Altman movies, “California Split” remains indifferent to narrative, content to ride the waves its characters create, a Murphy’s Law of betting. One night when Charlie wins big, he immediately gets robbed, a moment Gould plays with no fear whatsoever, just You Gotta Be Kidding Me exasperation at his hasty downturn of luck; when he confronts Lew in a scene late in the movie, Charlie gets his nose broken first, then lays Lew out, a turn of luck the other way. And the conclusion at a Reno card game, which seems tailor-made to turn on the archetypal One Big Hand, win it all or lose everything, offers a cosmic evening out rather than synthetic closure. The movie does not even really end, it just sort of stops, exposing an addict’s ostensible moment of clarity as nothing more than suspended animation. 

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Pitch Meeting: The Greatest Game Never Seen

Last week I was listening to an interview with sportscasting legend Al Michaels on The Ringer’s Pressbox podcast, ground zero anymore for all my inane movie ideas. Michaels talked at length about his start in the broadcasting business calling games for the old Hawaii Islanders, a one-time Triple-A Pacific Coast League team. He talked not only about essentially living right on the beach but how, to cut costs that traveling with the team would have brought, he would quote-unquote recreate road games by reading the live ticker and then calling the game as if it were happening right in front of him. You know what’s coming next. STOP THE TAPE.

This story got me to thinking. It got me to thinking about an aspiring baseball announcer, Lucy Davenport (Abbi Jacobson), relegated to calling games for some independent baseball team, the Hawaii Sea Turtles. Thinking no one will ever hear her in such a far-flung place, she is surprised when the owner of the St. Louis Cardinals, William Betterton (Carl Lumbly), vacationing on Oahu, happens to turn on a Sea Turtles game and hears Lucy’s call of a game-winning home run. Impressed, he seeks her out and advises his team’s current play-by-play announcer is contemplating retirement at season’s end. If he goes through with it, and if Lucy continues doing A+ work, then Betterton would consider her for the job. “I’ll be listening,” Betterton says. 

Alas, the Sea Turtles’ wily owner (Bruce McGill) pulls a fast one on a road trip, effectively canceling the season and destroying the team by selling all his players to opposing squads, like spare parts, all while they are still in the air, pocketing the cash high-tailing it for the Caribbean. Disheartened, Lucy tells her best friend, Kiana Lee (Sanoe Lake), with whom she plays in a co-ed softball league, who councils Lucy to not simply give up. “But what I do?” Lucy asks as they shag fly balls in the outfield. “The team doesn’t exist! They canceled the season!” “Not if you recreate it,” says Kiana.

So, with the help of her producer, Jake Garbanzo (Kevin Corrigan), refashioning himself as a 1930s radio special effects man, Lucy keeps calling the Sea Turtles’ non-existent season by concocting a sea story in which a tidal wave has placed the team’s field underwater and forced them to play the remainder of the season the road. She recreates games all the way to the championship at which point, taking things too far, she recreates their field as being reopened just in time for the Big Game. Big mistake! Betterton phones, saying he plans to attend the championship, forcing Lucy to employ Kiana and the rest of her co-ed softball league in a desperate bid to recreate a Sea Turtles game...for real!!!

Will the ruse work? If it does, will Lucy really decide to forsake paradise for the humidity of the Midwest? And will the sexist windbag of Honolulu sports talk radio, Devin Blabelford (Michael Shannon), who has made it his life’s work to expel every woman from the announcer’s booth, succeed in exposing Lucy’s gambit, or will he come to realize she’s the best at what she does after all? 

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Kirsten Dunst Characters as the 16 Personality Types

Friend of the Blog Rory sent me a Tweet a couple weeks back in which Hannah Seidlitz contended that a favorite Kirsten Dunst film is “the fastest way to identify anyone’s taste.” As she stipulated, if you cite “Melancholia” over “Spiderman”, or “Bring it On” over “The Virgin Suicides”, your taste becomes apparent pretty quick. It makes sense. Dunst’s filmography is so dense and varied that whatever you pick as your favorite is liable to stand out against everything else. That variance, though, is what got me to thinking in even grander terms than mere taste. It got me to thinking about Kirsten Dunst movies in terms of personality. In 1921, the preeminent Swiss psychologist Carl Jung published Psychological Types, categorizing people into 16 different personalities. Those types were given monotonous titles like ISFJ and ISTP, each one bearing descriptions that sites like 16Personalities.com have broken down into more easy-to-digest monikers. Even those, however, are a bit too mundane for an exotic year on the calendar like 2021. So let’s take those 16 Personalities and ascribe them a coordinating Kirsten Dunst character. I think it’ll make it more fun for the kids in sociology class. I’ll expect the textbooks to update accordingly.

Kirsten Dunst Characters as the 16 Personality Types

Campaigner: Betsy Jobs, Dick

Architect: Claudia, Interview With a Vampire

Logician: Mary Svevo, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Commander: Lizzie Bradbury, Wimbledon

Debater: Betty Warren, Mona Lisa Smile

Advocate: Justine, Melancholia

Mediator: Kelly Woods, Get Over It

Protagonist: Amber Atkins, Drop Dead Gorgeous

Logistician: Vivian Mitchell, Hidden Figures

Defender: Edwina Morrow, The Beguiled

Executive: Regan Crawford, Bachelorette

Consul: Claire Colburn, Elizabethtown

Virtuoso: Torrance Shipman, Bring It On

Adventurer: Mary Jane Watson, Spider-Man

Entrepreneur: Marion Davies, The Cat’s Meow

Entertainer: Nicole Oakley, Crazy/Beautiful

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Palm Springs

As “Palm Springs” begins, Nyles (Andy Samberg) is attending a wedding in the eponymous California desert community as a guest of his girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner). He’s not into it, the relationship or the wedding. He shows up at the afterparty wearing a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, chugging beers, evincing a prominent devil-may-care countenance, and when he grabs hold of the microphone during the toasts, it looks like there is going to be real trouble. There isn’t. His speech is gracious, inspiring, and informed; it moves the whole suspicious audience. “That was unexpected,” I thought. Ha! Oh, just you wait. Because if for one blessed moment you merely think appearances deceive, that the casually bedecked are just as capable of heartwarming speeches as the formally dressed, it turns out Nyles is simply stuck in a time loop, has been for a long, long time, and has been reliving this day, November 9th, over and over again, “Groundhog Day” style. And I thought: we’ve reached a strange point in modern movies. We’ve reached a point where a basic character reversal is more shocking than being stuck in a time loop; high concepts have ruined me. 

In fairness, that patented goofy air of Samberg’s, which is nicely dried out a little more this time, helps sell the concept despite its weird obligatory feeling. “Groundhog Day” is never mentioned, but when Nyles tells Sarah (Cristin Milioti), sister of the bride, who becomes stuck on November 9th with him, that we’re in “one of those infinite time loop situations you might have heard about”, he gives it the ring of a man who has been watching Harold Ramis’s celebrated time loop comedy for reference. And there are crucial divergences from “Groundhog Day.” If there we tracked the entire progression of Bill Murray’s weatherman Phil Connors, here we meet Nyles deep into the rabbit hole, just as Sarah does, making her our surrogate. She’s the one who wants to get out, and tries unsuccessfully, eventually acquiescing to Nyles’s resigned go-with-the-flow explanations. And once she does, “Palm Springs” is at its best, settling into the mid-tempo groove of a hangout movie, a little like if Jake and Beverly from “Everybody Wants Some!!” got stuck in a time loop, a high concept character study in which the concept puts their selves under the microscope. 

This kind of movie, though, is as much about sticking the landing, because once you write yourself into the corner at the beginning, how are you going to get yourself out? And that is where “Palm Springs” runs into trouble. The ending, rather than truly culminating a character arc, is more about narrative machinations, finding some way to trick the system, more or less, and fashion the happy if formulaic ending. Neither Samberg nor Milioti, meanwhile, can quite make the elegant turns of Murray, which, honestly, is probably asking too much of anyone. Not that I want to end with a complaint. Because wherever “Palm Springs” goes wrong, where it really goes right is when Nyles and Sarah, at their zero fucks peak, invade a biker bar they occasionally frequent and both amuse themselves and baffle everyone with a preposterous choreographed dance. It’s like if rather than Schwarzenegger’s Model 101 Terminator from “Terminator 2” getting into a rumble in the biker bar to get some duds suddenly found himself in an 80s New Wave MTV video instead. Who would ever want to leave a such a paradise?

Monday, April 12, 2021

One Night in Miami...

The night of February 25, 1964, after defeating Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title, Cassius Clay met up in a Miami hotel with three more Black American icons: singer Sam Cooke, football star and nascent actor Jim Brown, and activist Malcolm X. What was discussed, what happened, no one knows, though it became the genesis of Kemp Powers’s 2013 play “One Night in Miami...” Regina King has adapted that play for the big screen, though it is hard not to notice the film’s theatrical roots, given the limited setting, considerable conversation and dramatic structure. Still, not only does Powers’s adaptation of his own work build out the film with evocative add-ons, King utilizes space in that motel room as much as she can, visually and verbally, allowing pauses and ruminative close-ups amid the constant confrontation, as well as a gliding camera akin to her visual style for Cassius’s big bout, suggesting the real fight come after. 

Rather than simply open in the motel room, “One Night in Miami...” does not so much introduce us to all four men as reveal them in their present 1964 element, where even Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), the best football player in the world, cannot enter the home of a white family friend (Beau Bridges) because he is African-American and a white audience at the Copa is left indifferent to a burgeoning recording legend like Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.). The opening scene is a different Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) fight, against Henry Cooper (Sean Monaghan) in London, which he treats less as a bout than a canvas for clowning, until he briefly gets floored, yielding a reaction shot from his corner that is more comical than dramatic, demonstrating that for so much heavy talk “One Night in Miami...” can still be light on its feet. And by revealing Clay’s penchant for performance over purpose, this moment also establishes the film’s through line. Indeed, the first shot of Brother Malcolm (Kingsley Ben-Adir), in fact, is of him through the television set, sitting for an interview, then a cut to him at home with his family, a deft demonstration of how Malcolm had to negotiate his public and private worlds and how those unavoidably collided. Through this light, the kind devotion of nigh omnipresent security detail, Brother Kareem (Lance Reddick), becomes, well, not quite comic relief but a quietly comic reminder of solitude’s unattainability.

Part of the drama stems from Clay’s decision to join the Nation of Islam, one he has been keeping private but which comes to the forefront as the evening progresses, culminating in his announcement to the press. In this scene, the hotel room essentially becomes the wings and the balcony the stage, Clay stepping outside with Malcolm to make his forthcoming conversion official. Goree’s preening and strutting for the press does not feel quite as pronounced, perhaps, as the real Ali, or even as Will Smith performing as Ali, but his private persona feels spot-on, like it’s taking a page from David Maraniss’s portrayal of him in “Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World” as something more like a rambunctious teenager. There are moments when Clay, the heavyweight champ, remember, pointedly feels out of his depth among these men, underscored by how King has him fade into the background of frames. Jim Brown is on the opposite end of the spectrum, perhaps the least vital of the four figures in this context if only because he feels the most sure of himself, which Hodge’s cool charisma underscores. 

It might be Cassius’s evening but “One Night in Miami...” mostly boils down to Malcolm and Sam, the former prodding the latter to use his performance genius as protest, utilizing a tale of his seeing Sam live as something akin to a parable of connection, and even playing Cooke’s beautiful if skin-deep songs side-by-side with Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” The latter is an indelible moment, innately tied to now as much as then, conjuring up not merely notions of how easier it is for white people to lodge public protest without engendering blowback, a kind of dare with genuine weight. At this, Sam leaves the room, and for all his first-rate singing, it is Odom Jr.’s finest moment, rendering the pain palpable and personal. And yet Jim pushes back against Malcolm afterwards, pointing out Sam has economic freedom, the only true independence in a capitalist society, muddying those moralistic waters just a bit more.

The argument is settled, in a way, by the film closing on Sam’s public performance of “A Change is Gonna Come”, suggesting he has heeded Malcolm’s call to arms. The denouement of Spike Lee’s X biopic, of Malcolm on his way to the Audubon Ballroom, began with his patented floating shot scored to the same song and, true to that sensation, the activist’s fate looms over the entire movie, evoked in Kingsley Ben-Adir’s performance, which sometimes can feel entirely chiseled out of that stutter, desperate, cracking, someone who senses his time on this Earth is nearing an end and is pushing himself to ensure the cause will be upheld. At one point, Sam says Malcolm is talking to them in private the way he talks to everyone else in public. He means this as a criticism. But that’s the thing, even if the very premise of “One Night in Miami...”, imagining a summit untold to the outside world, suggests otherwise, the movie goes to show that for men like these, eventually, your private life and your public persona, like it or not, are one and the same.

Friday, April 09, 2021

Friday's Old Fashioned: Aaron Loves Angela (1975)

“Here’s a movie,” Wesley Morris wrote of Adam’s Leon impeccable “Gimme the Loot” (2012), “that looks like it hails from a real place.” Gordon Parks Jr.’s “Aaron Loves Angela” feels like it hails from a real place too, even if that place no longer exists, not really, being 1970s New York, specifically Harlem and Spanish Harlem. The camera is at frequently at street level, like it’s catching events on the fly, or at a distance, the actors conspicuously talking in looped dialogue, allowing them to be right in the middle of some cityscape. The basketball game that opens the movie is seen from high atop in one of those bandbox gymnasiums with seats straight to the top, the camera hovering over them and swinging this way and that way, just like a spectator. Key events turn on an abandoned tenement building, which doesn’t feel like a set but a place where the film crew just went and set up shop. It also innately epitomizes the neighborhood. Teenage Aaron (Kevin Hooks) wants to turn a floor of this building into a clubhouse, and sort of does, though that clubhouse is compromised by the drugs a local dealer has stashed on another floor, putting into perspective the harsh realities of this world, one Aaron seeks to escape. Initially it seems like basketball is the way out, his father Ike (Moses Gunn) literally equating buckets with bucks, though in that opening game, when Aaron catches a glimpse of Angela (Irene Cara) in the stands and suddenly finds himself in love, everything changes.

“Aaron Loves Angela” sort of suggests a Romeo & Juliet-styled romance, epitomized in the names of the basketball teams, the Harlem Saints versus the Puerto Rican Devils. And that is there, a little bit, with the characters sneaking around behind their parents’ backs and a scene where Aaron is chased out of Spanish Harlem. But the movie is not titled Aaron & Angela but “Aaron Loves Angela” for a reason, revealing that it sees this story strictly through his eyes rather than hers, as much Aaron’s life and his neighborhood as it is about their romance. That’s not to suggest Parks Jr. shortchanges Angela. She is worldly, having traveled with her mother, in a way Aaron is not, and refreshingly she refuses to be at Aaron’s beck and call, urging more from him, not simply waiting around for him to change, calling him when he won’t. When we briefly see her on something approximating a date with another guy, it sets Aaron off, as such things will do to impetuous teen boys, though Parks Jr. is not callowly portraying her as a shrew. Rather, she is figuring out her own life on her own time. Cara embodies such poise, even if she convincingly lets in cracks of hurt when Aaron messes up, and boy does he. Aaron is as endearing as he is frustrating, the latter of which I mean in a good way, Hooks’s performance alternating between completely cocky and totally clueless, sometimes both at once, as true a teenager as you will see.

Angela is the way out, Aaron gradually begins to see, not basketball, though this subplot could have been sharpened. The game just sort of falls away after the opening scenes and when Aaron explains to his father he is not good enough to earn a scholarship playing hoops, Parks Jr. has submitted next to no evidence as to why this would be the case. On the other hand, while a father living out his failed dreams through his son is nothing new, “Aaron Loves Angela” nevertheless brings it to life with considerable terror and melancholy. In a scene where Ike drunkenly berates his son, the slide projector on which dad had been watching his glory days playing football still whirs in the background, each slide like a flash of memory as a shiv into the defeated man’s side. Ike owns a joint, a kind of bar slash ribs joint, though Parks Jr. juxtaposes this kind of practical entrepreneurship against the unscrupulous Beau (Robert Hooks), a drug dealer and a pimp. In one scene he sits at the counter of Ike’s place, chowing down on ribs with a cocky air, contemptuously asking about his playing days, forcing Ike to just stand there and take it, and then asking for more sauce as a means to reinforce who comes first in this world. But he also saves Aaron at a delicate moment, telling the kid he’s owed a favor, though “Aaron Loves Angela” is not the kind of moving to turn that into a plot point. It mostly futzes up the morals, a little, reminding you that somehow Beau remains on Aaron’s side even as he floods the neighborhood with drugs. 

If Aaron is told by his father that basketball is the way out because basketball provides money, Beau becomes something of an inadvertent middleman to that possible escape. When a deal with the mob goes wrong and Beau winds up shot, laying on a staircase in Aaron’s clubhouse with a briefcase full of cash, he hands the $250,000 over to the kid, telling him it’s the way out. The mob finds out Aaron has the cash, of course, leading to a climax in which he and Angela are pursued through the Harlem streets. The score, however, by Jose Feliciano is not dramatic or suspenseful, it’s jaunty, maintaining a wry distance from the seemingly high stakes. Indeed, upon scaling the staircase toward a train, Aaron turns and hurls the briefcase into the air, sending dollar bills fluttering. He and Angela laugh and embrace. A lot of movies will tell you love is the answer, but I have rarely seen a single image so joyously live it out.

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Harrison Ford Says the Titles of His Movies

After re-watching “Clear and Present Danger” a few months ago, I told My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife about Harrison Ford - er, Jack Ryan - confronting the evildoing The President. This was not long after January 6th, not long after Nancy Pelosi had deemed our then-President, His Imbecility, a clear and present danger. And so My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife wondered, given the title, if that’s what Harrison Ford - er, Jack Ryan - called the movie President. Alas, he did not. But boy, I suddenly wished he would have. And that, as it absolutely had to, got me to thinking. It got me to thinking about Harrison Ford dispensing title drops of all his movies. Ok, ok, not all of them. Harry’s  made a lot of movies, man. But these were the ones that occurred to me.

American Graffiti. “When I’m through with you, kid, you’ll just be American Graffiti splayed across the road.”

Star Wars. “Besides, attacking that battle station ain’t my idea of courage. It’s more like, suicide” becomes “Kid, I’ve had it about up to here with all these Star Wars.”

The Empire Strikes Back. “It’s a good bet the Empire knows we’re here” becomes a rueful “The Empire Strikes Back” in the vein of “It’s all simple tricks and nonsense.”

Return of the Jedi. Falls out of the carbonite. Looks up. “Well, well, the return of the Jedi.”

Raiders of the Lost Ark. Slaps Sallah on the back while digging up the Well of Souls. “Guess we’re just a bunch of Raiders of the Lost Ark, huh?”

Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. Knight: “You’re dressed strangely...for a knight.” Indiana Jones: “I’m not a knight. I’m Indiana Jones...and this is the last crusade.”

Frantic. [Husky shout.] “I’m frantic!”

Presumed Innocent. Ok, I’ve never actually seen “Presumed Innocent.” But if Harrison Ford never gets to bark “Whatever happened to presumed innocent until proven guilty?” then someone really fell down on the job.

The Fugitive. Tommy Lee Jones already has this one covered. Next.

Patriot Games. [Shoves Sean Bean against the speedboat railing.] “I’m through playing all these Patriot Games. ”

The Devil’s Own. “Thought he was a good kid. Turns out he was The Devil’s Own.”

Air Force One. Glenn Close gets the title drop here, of course, and respect. But I’m a little disappointed that when Ford says “Do you know who I am? I’m the President of the United States” we couldn’t have tacked an “And this is Air Force One” onto the end of it.  

Six Days, Seven Nights. “This has been the longest six days, seven nights of my LIFE.”

Random Hearts. Kristin Scott Thomas: “What the heart wants, it’s so random.” Harrison Ford: “I guess you could say we’re just a couple Random Hearts.”

What Lies Beneath. “When I first met you, all I wanted was to spend the rest of my life with you. If only you’d known What Lies Beneath.”

Firewall. “This is the strongest firewall in America!”

Cowboys & Aliens. Looking through field glasses from high on a ridge. “I’ve never seen so many Cowboys and Aliens.”

Hollywood Homicide. Josh Harnett: “You’re saying what happened in Hollywood?” Harrison Ford: [breathes through nose] “Homicide.”