' Cinema Romantico

Friday, October 21, 2016

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

“The Taking of Pelham One Two Three”, predating the 2009 version, which I have not seen, by 35 years, is a thriller, yes, but its opening 10 minutes, or so, is not exactly thrilling. It is pragmatic. It simply sits back and watches as four men with topcoats and moustaches board, one by one, a New York subway train on different cars. Each man does not so much appear ominous as “up to something”. Slowly but surely their plan, coordinated by Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), evincing the colored code names the hijackers take, a concept Quentin Tarantino pilfered for “Reservoir Dogs”, emerges. They draw guns and assume control of the train’s first car, detach the others and then isolate themselves further down the tracks, employing their hostages to demand a ransom of $1 million from the NYC Transit Authority. There is a calmness in the demeanor of these men and a precision in their actions. Even if Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo) is revealed as having an itchy trigger finger, his aura is nonetheless relaxed. There is no grandeur to this takeover; it just happens, step by step. And that speaks to Joseph Sargent’s film as a whole, one that goes about its business without histrionics or explosive action.

In fact, the first time we see the movie’s ostensible hero, Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau), New York City Transit Authority police lieutenant, he’s asleep, underscoring the film’s whole low key vibe. And when he suddenly finds himself on duty, negotiating with Mr. Blue, Garber never comes across high strung or like a traditional action hero. Yes, there is a late scene, as there has to be, when he is skulking about with a gun, but when he pulls it Matthau doesn’t have his character play the moment for valor; he plays it as all part of the job. He comes across more like a having a sandwich while doing a little work. He’s not frightened by the situation so much as he is annoyed and confused. “Will ya?!” he barks at one underling when he’s interrupted while conversing with Mr. Blue. And that is what Matthau’s entire performance conveys – “Will ya?!” He can’t quite figure how this Mr. Blue plans to abscond with a million bucks from the depths of a subway. “They’re gonna get away by asking every man, woman and child in New York City to close their eyes and count to a hundred,” he says, and Matthau gives it the ring of a Catskills comic.

Not to worry, though, because Mr. Blue has a plan, yes he does, and he will not stop at nothing to achieve. Wait, that sounds pretty voracious, doesn’t it? “Stop at nothing”? Mr. Blue is not that kind of voracious. As played by an immaculate Shaw, Mr. Blue is cool and calm and his very real menace exudes from that cool and calm. Look at that way to tends to crossword puzzles as he issues orders to Garber about how he will execute hostages if he doesn’t get what he wants. With most movie characters issuing those kinds of proclamations, you’ll know they’ll bend, at least a little, but you never think Mr. Blue will bend. You think Mr. Blue will off an hostage and go right back to 12 across. The viewer starts to feel like Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), who keeps wishing that Mr. Blue would bend and not be so ruthless.

Mr. Green is supposed to be, in a way, the audience surrogate, the wronged former transit worker who just wants to get his. He’s also got the seasonal cold with the cough that you know – you just know – is the tell that will come back to get him in the end. It does, making for an almost drolly elliptical ending, and fair enough. There is something, however, more oddly moving in the comeuppance of Mr. Blue. I hope I’m not telling tales out of school to reveal that Mr. Blue doesn’t get away in the end. He doesn’t. And it’s the way he doesn’t that is weirdly, scarily effective. He might be a madman, but he never goes mad. He remains hyper-calm, even in the face of defeat, out-foxed, albeit barely, and has the good manner to accept his defeat rather than lash out. And as he puts his foot on the rail and electrocutes himself, it’s hard not to kinda admire the guy for a plan so tight he has even afforded himself a foolproof out if he cannot get away.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Ode to a Movie Tree

The other day at the venerable New York Times, James Bannon penned a piece chronicling the quiet tragedy of a 600 year old oak tree in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, a tree under whose branches George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette, my dawgs, are said to have cooled their top boots, a tree considered one of the oldest in North America. Every one of those 600 years, however, finally caught up with the old oak, causing it to be officially deemed unsaveable as it now merely waits to meet its maker.

I admit this article choked me up, and it got me to thinking, much like most anything does, about movies and trees in movies and the trees in movies to be remembered most fondly. Indeed, there are more Best Trees In Movies lists out there then you likely imagine, but these lists tend toward spectacular trees - like, magical, supernatural trees. Like, trees in fantasy movies, like the evil tree in “Poltergeist” or that tree that walked and talked in that “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” zzzzzzzzzzfest. But those tree do not interest me anywhere near as much as another tree interests me.

In Robin Hood lore there is the Major Oak, located in Sherwood Forest, near the town of Edwinstowe, where it is said the real Robin Hood hid from the Sheriff of Nottingham. And in 1938’s “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, the definitive Robin Hood movie, all other Robin Hood movies, there is the Gallows Oak, where the jovial Errol Flynn version of Robin Hood and his most merry of men congregate.

That Gallows Oak was actually Hooker Oak in Bidwell Park in Chico, California which stood in for Sherwood Forest. And almost forty year after the film was released, Hooker Oak fell. Maybe that doesn’t really matter. Maybe I should be happy I could still go get some shade under Major Oak, but then I’m the guy who upon visiting Washington D.C. was disappointed he saw the real Gil Stuart portrait of George Washington and not the replica Gil Stuart portrait of George Washington because the replica was the one Dolley Madison hauled out of the White House before the British burned it down which is, like, you know, one of my favorite stories of all time. That is to say, I would rather see the faux-Sherwood Forest oak where the Flynn Robin Hood chilled than the actual Sherwood Forest oak where the real, so to speak, Robin Hood took refuge. Alas, I can’t.

Still, that’s kind of an underrated aspect of movies, isn’t it? That ability to preserve. There are versions of “San Francisco” (1936) that include The Golden Gate Bridge under construction, freezing the image of America’s greatest architectural achievement at a unique moment in its history, and so too does “The Adventures of Robin Hood” ensure that Hooker Oak will never be lost to the annals of time.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Shout-Out to the Extra: The Naked Gun Version

Shout-Out to the Extra is a sporadic series in which Cinema Romantico shouts out the extras, the background actors, the bit part players, the almost out of your sight line performers who expertly round out our movies with epic blink & you’ll miss it care.

Before we get to the extra we have to first discuss what happens in the lead-up to the extra's appearance. That is to say, the California Angels (1988, y'all) and Seattle Mariners are contesting a do-or-die one game playoff to see who gets into the playoffs. And that do-or-die one game playoff just so happens to be attended by the Queen of England. And it just so happens that chief villain Vincent Ludwig (Ricardo Montalban) plans to have one of the baseball players unwittingly* (*it's complicated) assassinate the Queen of England. And it just so happens that Detective Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielson) catches wind of this nefarious plot and goes undercover as head umpire at the game to try and deduce the assassin's identity. And it just so happens that this leads, as it must, to a massive brawl between both teams when Drebin gets a little too big for britches. But it just so happens that Drebin still manages to stop the assassin in the nick of time. And it just so happens that Ludwig then absconds with Drebin's girlfriend up the aisle, hoping to make a getaway. So. All of this has just happened. A brawl. An assassination attempt. The assassination attempt being thwarted. The Queen of freaking England saved. And now a guy with a gun is fleeing up the aisle with a hostage in tow. And as he does, he charges past a spectator, bumps into the spectator and sends the spectator's popcorn bag tumbling to the ground. It is the popcorn bag of this specator.....

"Hey! Where'd all my popcorn go?!"
It's a bit tough to see, I know, and I apologize for the low grade quality of the still, but still, there it is, our faithful extra with the popcorn bag his character, so to speak, has picked up after having it knocked from his hands, and intensely studying the bag's innards only to realize that, alas, it is now sans popcorn. You would be forgiven for suspecting that a man who has just seen an assassination attempt of the Queen of England thwarted a few seats over and has a madman with a gun and a hostage in tow rush right past him and bump into him might suddenly himself an unconcerned with his popcorn, but that's just not how this extra decided this guy would roll. This guy paid for his popcorn, dammit, probably paid a lot, and now this gun-wielding hostage-taker has gone and sent all his precious popped corn tumbling to the disgusting cement? That's a bummer, man, whatever the context. 

Pour one out for the extra.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016


In the documentary that bears his name Anthony Weiner’s smartphone is virtually omnipresent in his hand. Whether he’s at home, in the office, in the car, walking the baby stroller down the sidewalk, you generally see him checking, well, something on his mobile device. Partly this is a product of our time and place; who doesn’t have a smartphone in their hands at all times? But it suggests something else, especially given the former representative’s noted proclivity for sexts, and especially given that we, and no one else on camera really, is privy to what he’s doing on that phone. Maybe he’s attending to political strategizing; maybe he’s just playing Candy Crush. But I watched “Weiner” directly in the aftermath of another Anthony Weiner sexting scandal and it seems to me that we can’t really know for sure. Intimacy is “Weiner’s” most notable aspect and yet, for as close as we get to him, in the end, he still seems so far away.

Initially it seems like Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman’s documentary will be a comeback story. After Weiner’s first scandal involving explicit what-have-you sent by cellphone prompts his resignation from Congress in 2011 he decides to run for Mayor of New York in 2013, initially with sweeping success, surging to first place in the polls. These early scenes, shot in a street-level handheld style and scored to 70s staples like “Theme from S.W.A.T.” and Ace Frehley’s “New York Groove” evoke a kind of 70s drama sensation, where a horribly flawed character digs deep into his soul for another shot. We already know the outcome, however, even if the documentary did not betray it in the prologue – that is, another sexting scandal erupts, sinking Weiner’s campaign, not that he’s about to abandon ship.

That not abandoning ship seems partly principled, partly vain. If it can be difficult to separate those two with politicians, well, “Weiner” becomes considerable evidence of just how aptly they go together. When you see Weiner take part in a Gay Pride parade, spewing passion through a megaphone, waving the rainbow flag, it is hard not to feel a liberal quiver in your heart. At the same time, it’s hard not to see the frenzied look in his eye, the zealous insistence on good-intentioned self-promotion. You smile and you cringe. He seems to crave attention even as the unrelenting microscope is exactly what threatens to bring him down. You see this in a moment in the back of his car, when the filmmakers are heard posing a question behind the camera and Weiner expresses annoyance by citing the definition of a Fly on the Wall documentary, how you are supposed to observe, not interfere. He does not want them there, but he totally wants them there.

Seeing Anthony Weiner in moments like these, whatever your opinion of the man’s morals or politics, is excruciating. We’ve all seen the defiance and meltdowns on camera, many of which are re-visited here, but this peek behind the curtain is more quietly stomach-curdling. Here it is not outside forces, like Lawrence O’Dell or angry citizens that feel let down by their representative, it is the people closest to him. In the wake of the latest allegation, his director of communications, Barbara Morgan, delicately inquires as to whether there will be more accusers, and if so, how many. You can feel her quietly judging him. But that’s nothing. If the image of the wife standing by her scandalous politician husband is commonplace, in “Weiner” we see that picture come to life as the wannabe Mayor’s spouse Huma Abedin emerges as the documentary’s most compelling figure. And damn if it ain’t some irony that an attention-hungry fella like Anthony Weiner gets usurped in a documentary named for him.

Abedin professes a preference for privacy, and while that might seem contradictory to her presence here, this is just an up close account, not a personal one, as we watch her wilt in real time. How precisely she feels about all this we never really know because she never really says. Instead we are left to glean her despondency from the incendiary incredulousness etched on her face, rendered in livid side-eye glances and the incredible moment when she sits eating a slice of pizza with disgust radiating from her body and toward her husband in waves. It’s like having restricted backstage access. You get just enough to know how she feels even if you can’t help but pine for Huma’s internal monologue.

Even better (much, much worse) is a sequence in the aftermath of the second scandal coming to light. Anthony and Huma are in his campaign office dealing with the fallout. He has taken a phone call to discuss their strategy with how to manage it. Huma listens on another line, pacing back and forth, shaking her head with a holy fury. When the call ends, she towers over him, arms crossed, staring down, while he appears to look past her out the window, at something, who knows what. You wonder if this will finally be the moment they verbally hash this crisis out. Then, he looks to the camera and asks if they can have a minute alone.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Blue Jay

Amanda (Sarah Paulson) and Jim (Mark Duplass), the central couple of Alex Lehmann’s “Blue Jay”, first meet in a grocery store aisle. They know each other. We know that they know each other because of the way each one steals a glance of the other and then looks away, and then looks back, and then looks away, as if trying to determine whether to speak or to flee. They speak, tentatively, and that tentativeness is indicative not just of the years passed between them but the emotional baggage that they carry, baggage you can sense continuing to accrue over the course of the film’s eighty minutes, where every time Jim strokes his beard and stammers an “Uh” or “Ah” as he looks away, where every time Amanda steals a knowing yet wondering look of Jim, it hints at the narrative bomb waiting to go off. And so even as these two high school sweethearts eventually fall back into the rhythm of the way things were, they inexorably march toward having to (try and) square with why the way things were went wrong.

Duplass wrote the screenplay and it is impressive for how it withholds information, not to string us along but to communicate the awkwardness of communicating with decades apart and the fear of saying too much, opting for elliptical mentions of the present and references to the past. When Jim claims he likes being married to his work rather than being actually married, Paulson has Amanda respond with a perfect pregnant pause followed by an incredulous “Really? No? Really?” smile before asking if he’s okay. He says he is, but quickly changes the subject, complaining about the coffee at the Blue Jay diner where they are, mentioning that their youthful hangout has really gone downhill, a returning to their shared history to avoid his reality.

If Amanda is also apprehensive about reality, she never completely evades it. As the duo eventually repairs to Jim’s childhood home which he has come back to attend to in the wake of his mother’s death, the ex-sweethearts sit on the deck, under the stars, staring at their hometown in the distance. She confesses that her marriage to an older man and children is good, if not quite what she thought it would be, and Paulson does not spin these words with anger or regret but a kind of bittersweet recognition for how life can simply settle into a groove so familiar it starts to feel like a rut.

Inevitably, with so many totems of the past stocked all over those, from old love letters in boxes to mix tapes they made when they were kids, Amanda and Jim re-engage with their past, slipping back into the rhythms of adolescence. When Jim expresses comic frustration at Amanda rifling through his belongings she ripostes: “Listen, man, you don’t have a lock on your shit.” And Paulson gives the line the truthful, hilarious, cringe-inducing ring of a teenager posturing, which is what she wonderfully does throughout all these scenes, slipping into the attitude and mannerisms of youth, just see what it feels like again for a few hours.

Apparently, however, it is not enough, because Amanda and Jim do not simply re-live the past within the walls of his old house; they envision an alternate future. They envision it literally, masquerading as a married couple, sitting down to dinner after a “long day”, like an indie Jim & Marcia Brady. It would be a little sweet and a little sad if it didn’t also feel a little desperate, reminiscent of another lo-fi indie, “The Dish & the Spoon”, where a break from reality threatens to leave the main character unmoored. Eventually, of course, the narrative bomb planted in that space between in the grocery store will have to go off, and it does, not that this review will give away precisely what occurs. Suffice it to say that a one-sided screaming match occurs, and for a moment “Blue Jay” threatens to sink on account of tedious melodrama, only to stop short.  

Amanda has an early monologue about being on the plane with little boy who screamed and stomped his feet in lieu of expressing himself and how eventually people eventually age out of such petulance. But in the wake of the reveal Amanda realizes that Jim has not aged out of such inexpressive petulance. If Duplass always had a little manchild in him, here he lets it bloom in full, as Paulson almost ineffably lets her character’s turn toward adolescence fall away as she returns to nurturer. If in every preceding moment they really looked like former lovers, here Paulson allows Amanda to look like a wounded mother to a little kid. It’s crushing. If movies about Going Home often provide epiphanies for moving forward, the real epiphany of “Blue Jay” is that the decision these characters made and have regretted was definitely the right one.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Sea Wolf (1941)

The first time we see the Ghost, the sailing ship where most of Michael Curtiz’s 1941 screen version of the Jack London turn of the century novel “The Sea Wolf” is set, emerging from the fog, just off the coast of California, it sure likes a ghost ship. It is not, of course, because this is not a supernatural story. No, the Ghost is a ghost ship in so much as it follows no traditional shipping lanes and stops at no ports. This might elicit the question as to exactly how the ship’s captain and crew turn a profit to keep their vessel going, and there is some goo goo gah gah about hunting seals, but we never see any seals hunted and besides, that is neither here nor there. No, the Ghost and its cold-hearted, crazed captain Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson) made me think of Matthew Broderick saying how his bank manager in “You Can Count On Me” (2000) fancied himself the dictator of his itty bitty little regional bank. Captain Larsen has essentially turned the Ghost into his own little nation, bound only to “the laws of the sea”, laws that he seems to have re-drafted to fit his own authoritarian urges and psychotic amusement.

“The Sea Wolf” opens with a few new Ghost crewmembers being recruited, both willingly and unwillingly, to accidentally get mired in this sea-faring dictatorship. Wanted man George Leach (John Garfield) boards willingly while an escaped con, Ruth Webster (Ida Lupino), and a writer, Humphrey van Weyden (Alexander Knox), wind up aboard when they are rescued from the water after their ferry has sunk. In no time these three find themselves trapped under the scurrilous clutches of Larsen who stalks the decks like a well-composted lunatic. You might wonder why these men would sail for such a vile man who clearly has no interest in anything other than playing mind games, but it is made readily apparent that he maintains control, and finds his own glee, by feeding their hate.

Take the ship’s doctor Louis Prescott (Gene Lockhart). He has a spotty record of care, given his drunkenness, given his shaky hands on account of his drunkenness, which has made him a mockery aboard the Ghost. But now Prescott has cleaned himself up and pulled on his impressive old ornate clothes and fixed up Ruth and he wants to be taken seriously; he wants the ship’s men to call him doctor; he wants Larsen to tell the ship’s men to call him doctor. Larsen agrees. Alas, when Larsen and Prescott emerge on the deck, the scurrilous captain kicks Prescott down the stairs and laughs at him. Everyone laughs at him. And in this moment you see Wolf Larsen for the bully he is, roaming his ship like the bully might have roamed the school hallways.

That’s why I never quite bought the film’s incessant determination to employ literature as a means to psycho-analyze Larsen. This is broached when van Weyden enters the captain’s quarters and finds, naturally, a copy of Paradise Lost turned to a page where, obviously, the line “Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven” is underlined. It’s that kind of analysis, and made even more explicit when van Weyden makes a study case of Larsen and then explains out loud why he thinks the way the captain is the way he is, more for our benefit than Larsen’s, and pales in comparison to the primal emotion of Edward G. Robinson’s performance apart from all this dime store psychology.

Still, even apart from this frustrating need to tell us what we can glean from the movie itself, “The Sea Wolf” works in the end, primarily in the way that Larsen maintains the delusion of his own power even as that power crumbles, even as everyone flees, even as a mutiny by way of escape is led by George and Ruth, even as his ship begins to sink. His ship sinking, however, proves of less consequence than besting van Weyden in one last verbal tete-a-tete. In other words, as long as Larsen believes in his own mind that he came out on top even as his ship goes down, well, he’ll go out a winner. It reminded me of someone else.