Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Cinema Romantico Fall/Winter Movie Power Rankings

At last. Fall approaches and just beyond Fall, sweet, glorious Winter. And with Fall and Winter we leave behind the preponderance of blockbusteria. I mean, mostly. I mean, you’ve got your Christopher Nolan Ginormously Hyped Mystery Meat movie and you’ve got your David Fincher Based On A Global Bestseller movie and you’ve got your Jennifer Lawrence Continues Her World Domination Tour movie and you’ve got your Inevitable Sequels to movies that didn’t really seem to warrant sequels and you’ve got your Middlebrow “Hey! Everybody’s In That!” thriller/drama thingamajig and you’ve got Brad Pitt In A Tank and you’ve got Johnny Depp playing dress up and you’ve got Sienna Miller Cameron Diaz playing Miss Hannigan and so on and so forth. But forget all that. Let's look at a few other offerings this forthcoming fall/winter. The offerings that the staff here at Cinema Romantico is most excited to see.

The Cinema Romantico Fall/Winter Movie Power Rankings

10. Red Army

Why I’m Excited To See It: It’s over-established that I am in irrefutable, uber-passionate, perhaps even annoying Olympics junkie, and this documentarian chronicling of the Soviet Union's uber-hockey power plays right to my Igor Ter-Ovanesyan loving heart. Also, it was directed by Gabe Polsky, who co-directed "The Motel Life", which you might recall me adoring.

9. The Better Angels

Why I’m Excited To See It: Cuz Brit-B-Brit plays Honest Abe's mom, yo. Woot-woot!

8. Laggies

Why I’m Excited To See It: Lynn Shelton, the director who helped coax the three best movie performances of 2012, takes flight with my beloved Keira Knightley.

7. St. Vincent

Why I’m Excited To See It: Because it's "Apt Pupil" meets "About a Boy" as re-imagined by Jim Jarmusch if he had a Luke Wilson accent and supported Sgt. Barnes in "Platoon" but still smoked pot.  Also, it stars Bill Murray.

6. Wild

Why I'm Excited To See It: Back when Reese Witherspoon, America’s Sweetheart, or so US Weekly would tell you, was arrested along with her husband and played the “Do you know who I am?” card and everyone had self-righteous fueled freak-outs, I wrote an open letter to her for the since extinct Anomalous Material in the hopes that she would use this moment to re-evaluate her career and motivation to take some risks. And here comes Reese in a mostly solo movie about a woman hiking the length of the Pacific Crest Trail all on her lonesome. Risk: taken. Here's to hoping it worked.

5. Foxcatcher

Why I’m Excited To See It: It’s over-established that I am in irrefutable, uber-passionate, perhaps even annoying Olympics junkie (wait, that sounds familiar), and in the run-up to the '96 summertime version in Atlanta I recall being consumed by the horrifying yet engrossing story of John du Pont murdering Dave Schultz, a freestyle wrestler under the millionaire's disturbingly eccentric wing. I can't say I ever considered that it might one day be a movie, but now that it's here...

4. Before I Go To Sleep

Why I'm Excited To See It: Little known fact - back in 2002 I pitched a thriller which I envisioned starring the impeccable Nicole Kidman as a woman who wakes up every morning remembering nothing of her past. Two years later, Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore turned up in “50 First Dates.” What can you do? I thought. Now, lo and behold, here's a thriller starring the impeccable Nicole Kidman as a woman who wakes up every morning remembering nothing of her past. I don't care if I'm not getting a cut off the profits! Let's do this thing!  

3. Rudderless

Why I’m Excited To See It: Billy Crudup, the best movie guitar player of all time, plays guitar in a movie again.

2. Zero Motivation

Why I'm Excited To See It: Because the trailer is an espresso shot of pure joy.

1. Birdman

Why I’m Excited To See It: Because the trailer is a goddamn religious experience.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Old Joy

“We’ll just have to find another rhythm.” This is what Mark (Daniel London) says to his longtime friend Kurt (Will Oldham) about life as he knows it and the baby he and his wife, Tanya (Tanya Smith), are expecting. But it also aptly describes the small but generally fabulous oeuvre of the film’s auteur, Kelly Reichardt, a woman who has found a different cinematic rhythm, one that can sometimes feel akin to the journey undertaken by Rachel Nuwer of the BBC in which she attempted to locate the last place on Earth without human noise. Reichardt is not afraid of silence and she often seems to be explicitly attempting to convey what silence can mean in a world infiltrated almost exclusively by noise. Her films often have political and social bents as well, yet “Old Joy”, from 2006, the barely 75 minute feature that seemingly started her recent run of creativity (“Wendy and Lucy”, “Meek’s Cutoff”, “Night Moves”), appears most intent on exploring what happens in our heads when everything goes quiet.

The film’s opening shots involve Mark meditating in the backyard of his Oregon home. This meditation quite unreservedly comes across futile, particularly when he fields a phone call from Kurt, whom he hasn’t seen in years, wondering if he might like to meet up for a hike to some supposedly mystical hot spring in the wilderness. He “runs it by” Tanya and she wonders about the point of running it by her since they both already know he’s going. It’s a conversation about how they don’t have conversations, and they both know it and neither seems to have any idea what to do about it, and this signals a communication breakdown, one which Reichardt seems quite content to hammer home in her laconic way.

As Mark drives to pick up Kurt, he listens to talk radio, pundits hollering about politics, but this feels less like rhetoric than aesthetic, the drone of background noise that follows everyone everywhere. Upon picking up his pal, in one of those anti-narrative decisions that many might resist, “Old Joy” follows them as they wind their way out of town, the camera insisting on the transition from the non-descript factories and hazy gray turnpikes and rote freeway signs to the evergreen forestry. This insistence lets us feel the fumes of the cityscape fall away. Still, the characters struggle to breathe in the replenishing oxygen. They get lost, not in that horror movie way but in that realistically meandering way. We see how time has subtly frayed their friendship – Kurt clinging to scraps of the past, Mark warily crawling toward the future. They came to clear their minds, yet the clouds won’t part.

The film’s finest shot is deceptively simple, placing the camera in back of the car and watching Mark field a phone call from his wife and exit the vehicle and walk up the road as we watch along with the Kurt through the windshield. This is it what it takes to be noise-free in present day America, for the other person to take his phone off into the woods. Yet when presented a moment of genuine silence, Kurt tokes up, as if the prevalence of our own thoughts is precisely what terrifies him about alone time.

Reichardt gradually builds “Old Joy” to a moment when both characters are left alone with their own thoughts, and what she does with it is brilliantly tricky. She plays on the audience’s own ideas of what happens absent human noise in a subverted Hitchcockian kind of way so that when a certain moment of behavior occurs between them, we, like Mark, think Kurt must be up to something nefariously bizarre. We can’t calm down. We can’t relax. We can’t shut off. And “Old Joy” makes clear how numbingly difficult it can be to get there. And when we do, we return to the sounds of talk radio and the noises of the street. Manohla Dargis of the esteemed New York Times saw hope in the final shots. I thought of when I return to the streets of the city from peaceful respites of seclusion and immediately, unintentionally and frustratingly drop right back into patterns of self-narration of exasperation, the urban sprawl re-consuming me. Joy, it's so hard to come by, so hard to sustain.

Monday, August 25, 2014


"Calvary" serves in abundance staggering shots of the sweeping shorelines, rocky vistas, high definition greenery, and churning seas that define its small town Irish setting, yet none of these images count as the film's most memorable. Rather the face of its lead actor, Brendan Gleeson, as weathered and windswept as the Irish coast, framed consistently in close-up, comes to define the film. Owning the screen in every conceivable way without overpowering it, he is Father James Lavelle, head priest at a remote parish, and at times Gleeson's bushy beard completely shrouds his clerical collar, a nifty visual trick suggesting the comings and goings of faith, and rendering him in those moments as nothing more than A Man In A Black Cossack - a Johnny Cash character by way of County Sligo. After all, he’s not your prototypical priest. He’s a reformed alcoholic and long-ago widower with a daughter (Kelly Reilly) who has just attempted to commit suicide not so much as a Cry For Help as a Who Knows What.

The film opens with Father James in a confessional where a man, never seen, enters the booth, claims he was abused and raped by a priest when he was a teen and vows revenge - not against the party responsible since he is long since dead, but against Father James, because if the priesthood is merely a symbol than any symbol'll do. The stranger, however, promises his target one week to get his house in order – then, judgment day.

While this looming showdown ostensibly means that Father James becomes a kind of investigator, dealing with the colorful local lunatics and ferreting out clues as to just who might have made this threat, it is less about that than illustrating him as the shepherd of his unruly and decidedly un-holy flock. As an actor, Gleeson has perfected the facial expression of appearing simultaneously bemused and aggravated, and here he wields it with abandon. This unnamed town at the core of "Calvary" becomes an effective representation of the world at large, one in which genuine faith is dwindling, where the local priest is a therapeutic caretaker rather than a servant of God.

Early in the film, a dying writer (M. Emmet Walsh) on whom Father James routinely checks up laments that his whole life is an “affectation.” Father James replies “That's one of those lines that sounds witty but doesn't actually make any sense.” It’s a comical retort, sure, but the film itself argues that Father James is less configured in Christ than in affectation. Consider that in spite of his station we never see the clerical main character sermonizing nor quoting scripture. The only time he gives out Hail Mary's and Our Father's is in jest. The closest equivalent is a brief early scene wherein he gives the sacrament to parishioners, yet their faces and follow-up behavior suggest they merely crave penance without actually having to repent.

As both writer and director, John Michael McDonagh does not make the Catholic church’s clerical abuses and cover-ups the explicit point but nor does he deflect their role. One scene finds Father James having a polite chat with a young girl only to watch, stupefied, as her father rushes in and squires her away, fearful that a moment left alone in a priest’s stead will only tender trouble. As such, the main character, taken in conjunction with the film’s title, evoking Jesus taking on the sins of all mankind on the cross planted to Calvary Hill, shoulders the sins of the Vatican. Not that the film presumes to provide atonement for an entire organization.

This is a personal journey undertaken by Father James, one pointed not toward a reckoning with the mystery man but a man getting right with God. That the journey's end point is not the plunge into darkness its nature suggests but a manifestation of belief is due in no small part to McDonagh's screenplay, though the performance of Gleeson is ultimately what conveys it with such heartrending authenticity. This is award worthy work, potency growing out of his restraint. He finds reason to believe. He gives us reason to do the same.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: Honkytonk Man (1982)

There is a remarkable Iris Dement song from 1993 called “Mama’s Opry.” Its narrative revolves around her as a young girl and her mother listening to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry and her mother singing along, and how that version of the Opry in her living room and the memories it engendered were just as special as the real thing. It taps into the idea of dreaming, which may be broad and might be false, but is always eternal. The American Dream is a pollyannaish behemoth, and being a music star might be the most elemental of all American Dreams. It is a dream that "Honkytonk Man" skewers even as it professes utter devotion to it.

The film is categorically Eastwood. Clint directed and produced and starred as the primary character, country and western musician Red Stovall, who makes fast friends with his nephew Whit, who is played by Eastwood's son, Kyle. This could elicit nepotism charges but I would argue these charges to be false. After all, what is country music but a family affair, like Hank to Hank Jr. to Holly, which is but one of innumerable examples. As Stovall, Clint also does his own singing, which is admittedly rough but also lends a certain gravelly authenticity that behooves the genre in which his character exists.

When we first meet Red on the family farm in the midst of a vicious dust storm in the heart of The Great Depression in Oklahoma, he is passed out drunk, and so we assume another in a story of a one-time star burning out. Instead "Honkytonk Man" flips the script and presents the star in the midst of burning out on his way up, not done in by the American Dream but by reaching for it. He's traveling cross-country to Nashville to audition at the Grand Ole Opry where riches may await for both he and his relatives.

He takes a shine to his nephew, teaching him to play guitar but also giving him his first glug of whiskey. Convincing the family to let him take Whit along to Nashville, as well as Grandpa (John McEntire), who's got old friends along the route, a road trip film breaks out, carving out room for all the standby pit stops. They visit a house of ill repute where Red pays for his nephew to have a brief encounter. A stopover at a blues club on Beale Street finds Whit getting high for the first time, if by accident. Red wields a shotgun to get a bundle of cash owed to him. None of this is new. In point of fact, it’s ancient, but then so much material for the best country and western music is ancient; it’s all in the telling. And “Honkytonk Man” is told with a languidness befitting of its rambling central character.

On a recent episode of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, John Oliver lampooned the American Dream, and how its ethos, defined by Marco Rubio as “haves and soon-to-haves, people who have made it and people who will make it”, instills a sense of false optimism that can just as easily yield disaster as it can a heroic Rocky Balboa freeze frame. The underlying viewpoint of the bracing, hilarious monologue, underlined by Oliver mimicking a roll of the dice, was that no matter how steep the odds, we hopeful Yanks just can’t stop betting that sun is gonna start shining down on us any day now. This idea is captured poetically by Eastwood in a sequence in a car at night on a lonely old highway that might well have been a dry run for the sequence in the car at night on a lonely old highway in his grand masterpiece “Million Dollar Baby”, except that there its star/director was doing the listening and here he is doing the talking.

It is a sequence that finds Red ruminating on the love of his life, the one who got away, not least because she was married, but mostly because he was a no good bastard (his words). He talks of their existence together as a couple poor wayfaring lovebirds, working harvests, living in flophouses and sharecropper shacks. They had nothing really, aside from each other, but it was the happiest he’d ever been. Of course, being the happiest you’ve ever been is never really enough. “Maybe if I get this break on the Opry,” he concludes, “we won’t have to stay in any flophouses or sharecropper shacks again.” Then the car vanishes into the darkness. Sometimes you don't realize your dream came true until it's long gone.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Top 5 Movies From My Era Of Cinematic Innocence That I Didn't Like

We’re in the midst of 80’s month – well, 80’s Friday – here at Cinema Romantico and, of course, the 80’s remind me of a more innocent time, if you discount Reaganomics, Iran Contra, the AIDS crisis, and – okay. I get it. The 80’s were awful. That’s because every decade is awful once you remove the rose-colored glasses of youth and get down to brass tacks. I once posted a Springsteen video on Facebook and lamented how much I missed The 80’s and a friend said something to the effect of “Dude, you were twelve in The 80’s” to which say, well, yeah, exactly. That’s why I miss The 80’s. I had no idea what was going on. Once you realize what’s going on, everything is awful. Blue Pill or Red Pill? The 80’s were the last time I took the Blue Pill, and got to wake up in my bed and believe. But were they?

The 80’s and the early portions of The 90’s that were like The 80’s Minor were truly the last days of my Movie Innocence, when I would watch a movie and love it no matter what. “Crocodile Dundee” was on par with the entire Carole Lombard catalogue. “Young Guns II” was as good as anything John Ford ever made. “The Flamingo Kid” was basically “On the Waterfront” with Matt Dillon. “Summer Rental” was a paean to perfection, “The Secret Of My Success” was a stone cold masterpiece and “Cocktail” was “Citizen Kane”. Anything you put in front of me, I loved it, and I loved it true.

Of course, that’s all revisionist history, and I know it is because every once in a while someone will mention a movie from that period of time and it will trigger a repressed memory and I’ll think, “You know what? Even then I thought that movie was crap.” Perhaps I was always critic even as I was simultaneously always someone destined to defend “Serendipity” ‘til death do us part. This brings me to my overarching question – what are the movies from my era of innocence that I specifically recall as not having liked?

5 Movies From My Era Of Cinematic Innocence That I Didn't Like

The Golden Child (1986) / Coming To America (1988). These two Eddie Murphy films were both box office smashes, each one finishing in the Top 10 and “America” climbing all the way to #2, and yet I quite literally recall being bored stiff by “The Golden Child” (I remember virtually nothing about it) and thinking “Coming to America” was quite plainly unfunny. I have no idea where “The Golden Child” sits now in popular culture and don’t care to do the research to find out, but every now and then someone mentions “Coming to America” in a memorable light even as they acknowledge its awful stereotyping. Nope. Sorry. Even with rose-colored glasses, the stereotyping is as awful as the whole movie.

Dragnet (1987). In so many ways I feel this was my first understanding of a critical thesis I will argue to my dying day (and into the great beyond) – that is, The Theory Of Expectations Is Absolutely 100% Bogus. My expectations were so high for this movie and I didn’t care how high my expectations were for this movie, and do you know why I didn’t care how high my expectations were for this movie? Because I knew what I was watching and my expectations had nothing to do with its rocking the blasé to the extreme. Fact.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990). Almost twenty-five years later and I still feel like I’m cleaning sewer sludge off myself after this O.M.F.G soiree.

Space Camp (1986). When I was in third grade my family moved into a new house in a brand new development that only had three other houses. Other than us, it was wide open fields and one paved road down to 4th Street and the Pronto convenience store where you could rent a movie (this is one of the reasons why I didn't see, say, Antonioni for years and years - I didn't have the fancypants Netflix these kids do now, I had the Pronto) and I remember many Friday nights peddling down there excitedly on my bike to get a VHS tape we could crowd around. "Space Camp" is one of the times I remember being most excited to make that half-mile journey. This may have been post-Challenger, but the premise was still music to a kid's ears - a trip to Space Camp at Cape Canaveral turns into an ACTUAL trip into space. Sigh. The only detail I remember about watching the movie was a foreign feeling then which I know all too well now - that sensation that all my excitement had atrophied and I was simply left with moviegoing mush.

Spies Like Us (1985). New Year’s Day morning at the home of my parents’ friends in Red Wing, Minnesota. I watched this with their two sons. I may still have been at an age where I was naïve enough to think one day I’d marry Samantha Fox, but I wasn’t so naïve to not think, “God, this movie isn’t funny.” Nor to think, “Could we please turn on the Citrus Bowl now?”