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Monday, May 16, 2022

All the Old Knives

As “All the Old Knives” opens, CIA agent Henry Pelham (Chris Pine) is tasked with interviewing his old colleague Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton), suspected of being the mole in a years-old operation involving a Turkish flight hijacked in Vienna. She lives in California now somewhere around Carmel, allowing director Janus Metz to revel in second unit footage of Henry’s rental car cruising scenic Highway 1, including Big Sur’s Bixby Bridge. No less an authority than Visit California describes this concrete span as “seen-it-in-a-million-car-commercials,” aptly putting into perspective the inherent handsomeness and predictability of the image. Maybe that’s a strange place to start, but it really stuck in my mind as “All the Old Knives” unfurled its tale of espionage and romance. Based on a novel by Olen Steinhauer (who also wrote the screenplay), this might be a mishmash of “Spy Game” and “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” but it yearns to be “My Dinner with Andre” as told by John LeCarre, a conversational spy thriller albeit one culminating in a would-be explosion of (misplaced) passion. As that Bixby Bridge shot foretells, however, “All the Old Knives” comes across almost too elegantly mounted, a twist that I can’t reveal exposing the movie in a way it doesn’t intend, its oft-deliberately reserved performances struggling to open up in the necessary way. 

Much of “All the Old Knives” is simply the dinner conversation between Henry and Celia, old lovers as well as old co-operatives, meaning the dialogue shifts between teasing out how they still feel about one another and more pointed questions and answers about what transpired during the hijacking op. There are other moments sprinkled in too, like Henry offering of the newly pescatarian Celia a bite of his free-range bacon, a not-quite-as-potent-as-it-needs-to-be metaphor for temptation. That romantic dilemma suffers in part from Celia’s hardly sketched marriage and family, blunting the would-be will they/won’t they tension. The flashbacks, meanwhile, to Henry’s other interrogation of their co-worker and Celia’s mentor Bill Compton (Jonathan Pryce) suffers because of Pryce’s performance, leaning too eagerly into jittery tells, like he’s too excited about playing the murderer in some murder mystery role-playing game. True, his character is a red herring in more ways than one, but he is nevertheless too obviously a feint, and subsequently plays against the notion that Celia ever considered him a mentor in the first place or “like a father.” This guy?

Though Metz conveys the scenes aboard the airplane with more of a handheld approach, and even incorporates Celia’s recurring nightmare about being aboard the hijacked aircraft, the terror of these scenes and the terrorists’ motivations tend to feel distant. That’s not a bad thing. When Henry’s supervisor (Laurence Fishburne) orders he and his other colleagues to contact their sources in the wake of the flight being taken hostage, Henry reaches out to an old Chechen informant (Orli Shuka) the CIA forced him to sell out to Russia. There’s convenience in the plotting here, perhaps, an international incident coming down to a pair of old friends, but it also speaks to how Americans and American intelligence spur radicalization that comes back to haunt them while simultaneously seeking to wipe their hands of it. In this light, the coldness of the hijacking scenes feels true, less real life than a geopolitical problem to solve. 

That lack of feeling trickles down to the all-important romantic relationship. In the present-day scenes, Pine and Newton’s chemistry is more icy than titillating, the two actors consciously playing, like, you know, CIA agents, cautious of their every move, sending up looks and seemingly banal observations as feelers, trying not to betray too much, especially since they both know why Henry is here even if he is not explicitly saying it. In the past scenes, however, where their passion is supposed to be both paramount and genuine, the two actors still seem stuck in their present-day gear, the romantic passion oddly muted. Even if the placement of a mid-movie sex scene is spot-on, staged in the wake of the hijacking going wrong, this being their reaction to it, the whole thing is played and shot in such an artful way that it ironically undercuts any sense of the ostensible urgent release. Their love and their lust, in other words, feels like a put-on when it’s the single element of the movie that is not supposed to be a put-on at all, meaning the movie’s biggest twist, not to be revealed, which could have been scorching, pitting desire and duty square against each other in the center ring, fatally falls flat. 

Friday, May 13, 2022

Friday's Old Fashioned: Red Heat (1988)

“Red Heat” is a movie of its time, which is to say 1988, which is to say when the Cold War was at its tail-end but still in vogue and, even more, when comedies could not only be combined with action but with R ratings allowing for as much violence and nudity as yuks. Indeed, “Red Heat” was directed by Walter Hill, who made perhaps the seminal 80s-styled R-rated buddy comedy in “48 Hours” (1982). There the opposing buddies were Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte, black and white, outrageous and gruff, and (several) years later “Red Heat” adjusted that formula with Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Belushi, a Russian (Soviet) and an American (Chicagoan), terse and boisterous, like if Ivan Drago buddied up with Carmine Lorenzo from “Die Hard 2.” That means Belushi is playing more of the straight man, even though he’s supposed to be funny, and Schwarzenegger is playing more of the funny guy, even though he’s got the air of a straight man, a unique role reversal resulting in more of an lol movie than the LOL of “48 Hours.”

The movie opens with Schwarzenegger’s Ivan Danko (which sounds suspiciously like Ivan Drago now that I think about it) going undercover in a Soviet foundry’s sauna to bring down a Georgian drug kingpin, Viktor Rostavili (Ed O’Ross). It’s a nifty setpiece, not least because I can’t think of another way to have a character played by a former Mr. Universe convincingly go undercover than in a foundry sauna. Schwarzenegger’s barely clad rear end hardly looks out of place amid all the impressively chiseled physiques – at least, until one of the characters notices his hands don’t quite befit a foundry worker’s, exposing his ruse and leading to a scrap that crashes through a window and continues outside. I’m not sure the hand-to-hand combat supersedes the memorable bathhouse brawl in “A History of Violence,” but the bathhouse brawl in “A History of Violence” didn’t spill out into the snow, an evocation translation of the sauna’s cool-down phase.

Alas, Rostavili still gets away, fleeing to America, only to be brought up on some minor violation in Chicago. Danko is dispatched to retrieve him. The drug kingpin escapes the CPD’s clutches too, of course, meaning Danko must stay in America to get his man with Windy City Sgt. Art Ridzik (James Belushi) as his minder. Ridzik is both combative and indolent, an archetypal American, refusing to obey his boss’s orders and put out with his Danko babysitting gig if only because it means more work. He seems to take the mantra of the poster on the wall at the flophouse where Danko stays – Killing Time is Not Murder – to heart. When they are forced into an all-night stakeout, Ridzik seems genuinely happy, as Belushi has his character recite the four food groups of “hamburgers, French fries, coffee and doughnuts” with an eager gleam in his eye.

The flophouse is not just a humorous place to stay but a key to cracking “Red Heat’s” code. This was but two years after “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” a Chicago travelogue demonstrating the gleaming utopia of the go-go Reagan capitalist era. Ridzik’s Chicago, on the other hand, is the seedy underbelly of that dream, comically if blatantly brought home in Danko’s realization that the TV in his room is coin-operated. “Capitalism,” Schwarzenegger demurs. Hill is inviting us to laugh with Danko much more than at him, a key delineation, just as he is summoning us to cheer when Danko tramples all over America’s Miranda Rights after Ridzik makes a half-hearted case for them, blurring the lines between ostensibly black and white American and Soviet values in a commercial movie released at a time when those lines were theoretically drawn rigidly in the sand. Not that “Red Heat” muddies U.S.A.! principles entirely. Hill suitably amplifies the climactic car chase by staging it with buses instead. Any return to 1980s values understandably spooks many of my fellow Americans, but this sort of bigger is better action movie spirit is the one value I would like to see us reembrace. 

Thursday, May 12, 2022

(Not) Ranking All The Dude's White Russians

2022 is not the Silver anniversary of The Coen Brothers cult classic “The Big Lebowski.” No, that will be next year. But then, doesn’t the stoned out vibe of “The Big Lebowski” suggest a 25th anniversary might unintentionally take place on the 24th instead? Perplexed Jeff Bridges Voice: “What year is this?” Not that the approaching anniversary is what inspired this post. No, that stemmed from the cabin where I was recently vacationing on the north shore of Minnesota where along with all the usual rustic decoration the owners had also propped up a framed ode to the White Russian, referencing both Halle Berry’s Catwoman (I haven’t seen it but I picture more a dark rum drink there) and The Dude of Los Angeles, California. This ode noted, in fact, that The Dude imbibes a total of nine white Russians during “The Big Lebowski.” “Is that right?” I thought. “Nine?” I counted them off and then realized I had the makings of a post, one in which I could rank all nine of those White Russians. But ranking The Dude’s White Russians...I don’t know, that seems very un-Dude. So, what about honoring one of the original authors of the Port Huron Statement with a semi-philosophical appraisal of all nine White Russians? After all, the White Russian recipe is essentially universal, yet each White Russian in “The Big Lebowski” is not necessarily alike. 

(Not) Ranking All The Dude's White Russians

The most famous White Russian imbibed by The Dude is undoubtedly the one when he is transferred by force from one limousine to another because even with his left arm twisted behind his back he never relinquishes that cocktail in his right hand, memorably imploring “Careful, man, there’s a beverage here!” and epitomizing the imperishable preeminence of vodka, Kahlua, and milk. 

The least White Russian-y White Russian are indisputably the two served to him by adult film impresario Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara). “A White Russian,” Gazzara says as his character mixes the drink for The Dude in a voice that makes it sound like Jackie Treehorn has a long, complicated history with the beverage himself. But these drinks, of course, are laced with narcotics, knocking The Dude out, fashioning the White Russian as a weapon, the spiritual antithesis of it as a relaxant, a mixologist’s most severe transgression.

The Dude’s last White Russian is quietly a perfect embodiment of a boozy post-coital breather (with Maude) even if it chiefly exists as the conduit to a sight gag.

The two White Russians drunk by The Dude at Maude’s – one in their first meeting, one in their second encounter – function as a kind of party favor.

The two White Russians he downs at the bar bowling alley – the first with Walter and Donny, the second with The Stranger – are nothing less than a barfly therapeutic.

In the end, though, it is The Dude’s first White Russian that seems to say it all. We first see him mixing it in a wide shot, framing him beneath his framed picture of a bowling President Nixon, essentially uniting The Dude’s two most fervent beliefs (White Russians and bowling, that is, not Nixon’s version of the war on drugs). And when his eccentric landlord subsequently knocks on the door, apologetically and indirectly asking for the rent, that same White Russian becomes a medicinal in the face of this economic burden, while in the ensuing moment it becomes something even more than medicine, the nexus, sipping at it even as he performs some vague variation of on Tai-Chi, his treasured mixed drink the ultimate source and limit of reality, the shot that ties the movie together like the rug he’s standing on binds the room. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

A Very Serious Review of Lady Gaga's Top Gun: Maverick Anthem

I couldn’t tell you the first time I dreamed of flying a plane and what prompted it. It might have been touring the SAC Museum in Omaha or the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs as a kid, but more likely it was Luke Skywalker making his target run, or Maverick putting on the brakes so they could fly right by, or perhaps most realistically Snoopy envisioning himself as the WWI Flying Ace. That beagle had an active imagination and so did I. All I know is that any dreams I might have once harbored about flight pretty much died the day during an adolescent game of backyard football when I removed my glasses during a rainstorm and fired a pass to what I thought was my best friend running something approximating a crossing route only to hear the pigskin thwack off a tree. If you’re throwing passes to trees, you probably shouldn’t be strapped into a cockpit. That all came to back me last week as I waited to board my flight at the Duluth International Airport back to Chicago. After all, the Duluth Air National Guard is housed on the airport’s grounds, and as I sat twiddling my thumbs (looking at my phone), a couple F-16s thundered down the runway and into the sky, the takeoff so loud the windows I was watching them through rattled. “What,” I wondered, “would that feel like.” Mentally, I sighed for, surely, I’d never know.

After I settled into my seat aboard the tiny regional airliner and we taxied out to the runway, I suddenly remembered that earlier that morning I had downloaded the just-dropped Lady Gaga track – “Hold My Hand” – off the forthcoming “Top Gun: Maverick” soundtrack. What better way to christen my ears with it than during takeoff? I put on my headphones, taking that moment that I do before listening to any new Gaga track to appreciate the fact that I’m about to listen to a new Gaga track, and cued it up. And as our elbow room-less little aircraft lifted into The Gopher State air and Gaga pulled the throttle forward to that first rendition of the chorus, I could have sworn, for four bars there, our Air Wisconsin Canadair Regional Jet eclipsed the sound barrier. 

Friday, April 29, 2022

Possible Movies of the MCU (Michael Clayton Universe)

The modern thriller classic “Michael Clayton” (2007) is currently streaming on Netflix and so perhaps that’s why just recently I saw someone on Elon Musk’s Latest Attention-Grabbing Venture to Eventually Abandon (i.e. Twitter) lauding the MCU – Michael Clayton Universe, that is, as opposed to more fashionable Marvel Cinematic Universe. I can’t source the Tweet now, though in trying to I found a few other people who have, in the last few years, made a variation of this same joke. So, it’s nice to know that there are other “Michael Clayton” fans and, more crucially, Thriller-heads out there too. Now, Cinema Romantico is generally against such cinematic universes. This blog believes it stifles creativity rather than encouraging it and has gone a long, long way into turning Movies, glorious Movies, into TV. But we also not-seriously demand equal CU time. As we have argued before, if you get your MCU, why can’t we have our NKCU (Nicole Kidman Cinematic Universe)? That’s only fair. And that brings me to the Michael Clayton Universe – namely, what films could we create for it? This post is incredibly niche, I know. but then, Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack) compliments Michael Clayton on having a “niche,” so maybe that’s appropriate.

Possible Movies of the MCU (Michael Clayton Universe) 

1.) Let’s get the ball rolling with an easy one, the obvious one – Mr. Verne (Robert Prescott) and Mr. Iker (Terry Serpico), the rival fixers cum assassins. We wouldn’t see what they were up to after their botched hit of Michael goes wrong but see what they were up to before, a Mr. Verne and Mr. Iker prequel of sorts, beginning with them being called away from another round of golf to attend to another dastardly job, probably involving a sweaty charlatan played by Sam Rockwell with a greasy moustache, a frantic Winona Ryder, and Keith David as a detective who is too old for this shit.

2.) Clearly a whole movie is waiting to get out of the poker game in the basement of the Chinese restaurant. 

3.) Mr. (Denis O’Hare) and Mrs. (Julie White) Greer could effect a whole riff on “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” during the former’s hit and run trial.

4.) “He’s an asshole,” Marty Bach says of Barry Grissom (Michael O’Keefe), one of his firm’s attorneys, “but he knows it.” And doesn’t that, the self-aware asshole, sound just like a burgeoning protagonist of a John Grisham Movie in the Michael Clayton Universe? I mean, merging the JGU with the MCU unlocks all sorts of golden doors. Suddenly you’re looking at the potential for George Clooney & Sandra Bullock or Tilda Swinton & Mickey Rourke as co-headliners. The sky’s the limit. 

5.) But then, part of what makes “Michael Clayton” so great is that eschews romanticizing The Law a la Grisham. So. What if we make an entire movie of Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) “grind(ing) away on this case for six years without a break”? Like Irv Blitzer in “Cool Runnings” showing the prospective Jamaican Bobsled team footage of bobsled crashes to let them know what they’re getting themselves into, we will show this MCU movie to prospective law school students. Maybe this how we can begin infusing the world with more English majors. 

6.) Speaking of which…remember all those apple-faced law firm newbies who look scared witless in the hotel room after Arthur goes off the deep end during the deposition (including a pre-fame Katherine Waterston)? Let’s follow them as they quit their jobs to follow The Grateful Dead. Roll up those billable hours and smoke ’em.

7.) Michael flaming out at trying to get into the restaurant business with the mob would make for a killer MCU movie. We’ll convince Marisa Tomei to ditch the MCU for the MCU to play a New York State Liquor Authority commissioner.

8.) When Karen Crowder (Swinton) is going through Michael’s credentials it’s noted that in 1986 he worked with the Joint Manhattan-Queens Organized Crime Task Force. A 1980s crime thriller in the MCU?! “Jonathan, bring me my green light!”

9.) Remember the part where Michael is on the phone in his office, kind of going through the motions in doing his job, talking to who-knows-who about some 22-year old charged with reckless endangerment in Key Biscayne? I’m seeing “Michael Clayton...Goes to South Florida” with Clooney looking miserable, just absolutely miserable, in a floral print shirt and Andy Garcia as some corrupt local politician conducting his business outside a walk-up coffee window.

10.) A Blank Check Movie in which we give Merritt Wever a blank check to just take her character wherever she wants.

11.) Karen Crowder’s Law School Adventures, in which we discover young Karen Crowder (still played by Swinton somehow) is both hyper-ambitious and problematically conceited, forced to enlist the law school version of Mr. Verne and Mr. Iker (Abbi Jacobson, Awkwafina) to help her graduate at the top of her class.

12.) A wacky body switch comedy in which Michael Clayton the fixer magically changes places with Michael Clayton the football player!

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Some Drivel On...Tokyo Vice

There’s nothing to recap in the first episode of HBO’s crime drama “Tokyo Vice.” I mean, there’s plenty to recap, sure, in so much as an American journalist named Jake Adelstein (Ansel Elgort) earns a job with the Meicho Shimbun, inspired by the Japanese daily newspaper Mainichi Shimbun, in the late 90s and gets put on the cop beat where he begins asking verboten questions. But that suggests the first episode of “Tokyo Vice” is like all other narrative TV, which is to say a straight-forward series of plot details often recounted in straight-forwardly shot dialogue-laden scenes, or dialogue-laden scenes jumbled and mixed up into some sort of puzzle calculated to induce all manner of post-watching theorizing, nothing more than a delivery device for just the kind of recap that I do not want to write here. The first episode of “Tokyo Vice,” bless its heart, is a full-fledged experience, less an IMDb plot summary in visual form than a painting hanging on the wall in a museum to let yourself get close to and linger over. It was, we should now note, directed by one of the show’s executive producers – Michael Mann.

Indeed, adhering closely to his preferred modus operandi, Mann opts for total immersion, dropping us straight into the show the same way Jake has since been dropped straight into Tokyo culture. Mann carts his camera all over the Japanese capital to give an indelible sense of place, from the kappo style outdoor counter where Jake orders liver and leek to him losing it in the music at a dance club, both illuminating the character’s level of comfort and enjoyment in this foreign place. Not to say he doesn’t stick out. He does, and Mann seems to have cast Elgort specifically for that purpose, his height and gait among the Japanese people implicitly denoting him a fish out of water just as his newspaper supervisor’s stupefied (hysterical) look of indignation upon realizing this fish in his jurisdiction is rendered with two heads encroaching either side of the frame, like this gaijin’s mere presence is already squeezing his brains so much they hurt. 

Rather than laying out specifics of the entrance exam Jake takes to work for the Meicho Shimbun in the first place, Mann emphasizes the moment’s stress through music and edits while also allowing the innate significance of this ritual to become an unspoken reflection of the Yakuza ritual at episode’s end. This is where “Tokyo Vice” is leading, hinted at in the opening scene and snippets of dialogue throughout both from Jake’s editor (Rinko Kikuchi) and a vice detective (Hideaki Itō), that murder is a prohibited word in Japan. In one sequence, Jake tags along with that vice detective to a neon infused karaoke bar where simply in the way both a nameless Yakuza and Jake ogle an American woman Samantha (Rachel Keller) doing a decent “Sweet Child O’ Mine” you see the thin line between reporter and the person he reports on. When Jake has a conversation with Samantha, the dialogue might fill in some blanks but the mood, how the scene ends, Elgort’s punch-drunk naivety, all evoke something more ephemeral, not set-up for what is to come but the fleeting, fraudulent beauty of life. 

But ephemera’s no good for TV. What’s HBO Max going to automatically cue up next? And so when the Pilot gave way to Episode 2, it departed Mann-land for Narrative TV-land, all short scenes of dialogue, characters who had barely said a word in the first episode now chattering away, the kinetic visual language reduced to the functional, the atmosphere drained. The characters were the same, the plot was similar, the city identical, but it felt as I had stepped into a whole other dimension, the very one the Pilot had refreshingly transcended. The second episode was fine, just another TV show, which is what made it so much worse. I stopped watching. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

The Outfit

As “The Outfit” opens, English cutter Leonard Burling (Mark Rylance) enters his Chicago bespoke suit shop in the early hours of a 1956 morning and goes to work at his table in back. His receptionist Mable (Zoey Deutch) enters and exits, but Leonard doesn’t look up. Grim mobsters in topcoats and fedoras walk past him to a lockbox in back, depositing packages, removing packages, but Leonard bats not an eye. It’s only when one of these mobsters, Richie Boyle (Dylan O’Brien), less grim than the others, perhaps because he’s the son of the boss, playfully smacks Leonard on the shoulder while cracking a joke that the English cutter has his working trance broken and looks up. Don’t presume, though, that Leonard has not been paying attention. Still waters run deep, as they say, and rarely have still waters run deeper than Mark Rylance in “The Outfit”, a knotty crime chamber piece directed by Graham Moore. Though Moore and his co-writer and Johnathon McClain can’t help but deploy one twist too many, while also negating the power of one of their niftiest twist by having set themselves a chamber piece obstacle in the first place, Rylance is so convincing throughout that he might just convince you of that surplus twist too. 

Leonard’s carefully crafted existence begins to implode when a wounded Richie is brought to the shop late one night by his colleague Francis (Johnny Flynn) after a confrontation with the rival LaFontaine crime family goes wrong. Francis forces Leonard to stow a briefcase with a FBI recording purporting to identify a rat in Boyle’s organization, the object and the question that will drive the remainder of the movie as various characters come and go, including Mable, who is dating Richie on the sly, and the biggest Boyle, Roy (Simon Russell Beale), as loyal to Leonard as he seems to be to his own flesh and blood. Who will wind up with the briefcase? Who is the rat? All this unspools over the course of a single night and entirely within Leonard’s shop, the opening sequence as he walks from front to back laying out the scene for the subsequent 106 minutes. To Moore’s credit, he evades any sense of staginess, and even eschews claustrophobia. It’s not just that he switches scenes between the shop’s front and back but that he provides a sense of breathing room all while favoring long shots that not only show the whole space but tend to include all the characters, most notably Leonard, who anchors nearly every moment he’s in even when he’s not the focal point, Rylance’s eyes always wary and thinking. After an apparent ruse to get Francis out of the shop fails, meaning Francis returns to the back room from the front, the camera simply contemplates Leonard in a medium long shot, where the actor’s countenance of readiness for what may come mesmerizes. 

There is, however, a downside to this limited locale, dampening the power of a late movie turn by Nikki Amuka-Bird as Violet LaFontaine, head of Boyle’s rival criminal outfit. She gets a monologue about herself and other immigrants, like Leonard himself, being underestimated by the mobsters on the block who would seek to impose their will. The words are moving, and so is Amuka-Bird’s delivery, though the deliberate lack of world-building leading up to it also causes the moment to suffer contextually. Without seeing the world she’s describing, save for this lone shop in which we spend all our time, it can’t help but reduce her monologue to a delivery device of theme rather than the righteous excoriation on behalf of immigrants everywhere it yearns to be. Indeed, at one point Leonard explains that cutting is a craft, not an art, and Violet’s speech comes across like a minor breakdown in craftsmanship that, in turn, causes the overall art to suffer.

It’s clear Moore wants us to feel the potent metaphor of a suit and how “The Outfit” itself is meant to go together like one Leonard’s creations. Mable’s emergent dreams of seeing the world, however, along with little details such as an uber-timely phone call and Leonard’s shears, referenced so frequently you know precisely the moment when they are about to be summoned for bloody effect, mean that dramatic elements conspicuously stick out as dramatic elements rather than elements properly dramatized. Even so, at the center of all this stands the cutter, Leonard, Rylance, who is giving an A+ plus performance that never ever tips its hand as to whether playing dumb or playing everyone for fools, the mystery that truly drives “The Outfit.” Indeed, there are moments here when like characters in the film, I was trying to size him up, to see if I could call his bluff. Finally, I had to fold.