Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Inadvertent Aerial Transcendence

In an interview with Oliver MacMahon regarding “Runoff”, director Kimberly Levin talks about the way in which she and her filmmaking team pulled off the all-important recurring shots of a bi-plane dusting crops. She explained they needed several takes from a trio of set-ups, yet had no way to communicate with the pilot whose plane only held enough fuel for forty-five minutes, a blip of time in movie-making land. Still, they made it work, and Levin reverently deemed it “forty-five minutes of serendipity.” It made me think of another shot in a different film involving a plane.

Michael Mann, I suspect, is anti-serendipity. He has been termed a good many things in his quality-laden filmmaking career but one label that often seems to apply above all others is this: meticulous. He is finicky in his craft to the point of extreme notoriety. There is an oft-repeated claim, such as here by the esteemed Matt Zoller Seitz, that on “The Insider” Mann re-shot an entire scene because he didn’t care for the actor’s tie. It’s that sorta meticulousness. Like, you’re surprised to find out he didn’t invent a time machine to film “Last of the Mohicans” in 1757, space-time continuum be damned because authenticity matters more and the damn Fort William Henry needed to be the damn Fort William Henry.

“Miami Vice” might have been Mann at both his most meticulous and his most maddeningly out of control. His budget spiraled and his shooting schedule mushroomed as he sought to achieve his vision, causing divisiveness among the crew and cast, even making its star, Jamie Foxx, take his ball and briefly go home. A crew member quoted by Slate for a story involving the torturous process was quoted as saying how the film “was being written essentially by Michael on the fly. … That kind of indecision becomes a systemic thing. It’s hard, at the last minute, to make deals with vendors, rent a plane, to close down a freeway.” Rent a plane. That one intrigues me because there’s this incredible shot in “Miami Vice” involving a plane.

It’s a sequence in which our main characters, deep undercover, are transporting drugs up from South America and into Miami aboard a plane. To do so, they “pancake”, as Mann tells us on the film’s director’s commentary, by bringing their plane so close to another plane in mid-air that it looks like one aircraft on radar. It’s a snappy little sequence. None of it, though, compares to its capping shot, that of the plane, soaring above the Floridian swampy marsh and toward a horizon consumed by an immense and immaculately splendiferous thunderhead, an image that has nothing to do with anything, really, but is so elementally staggering the only proper response is breathless adoration. It’s a shot founded on the Zen principle that if one were to dissect it then it would cease to be Zen.

So, how did Mann render this shot? Did he have a copy of the weather forecast, a camera locked and loaded and a plane and pilot at the ready for a moment when a rainstorm might unleash? Did he just fly around and around for hours, waiting, hoping, and re-fueling mid-flight? Did he manipulate the atmosphere with some sort of weather machine he built from scratch in his basement? He’s Michael Mann! He must have found a way to bend nature to his will. Or, for once, were the circumstances of majestic cinema beyond his control?

If you don’t remember the artwork for Bruce Springsteen’s 1980 “Hungry Heart” single it featured The Boss himself with a just-kicking-it look on the Asbury Park boardwalk. Behind him, to the left, is a woman propped up on a bike as she leans into a phone booth, making a call. Her back is to the camera. We can’t see her face. Her identity is a mystery. At least, it was a mystery. That woman, Annmarie Solimini Adderley, it was revealed in a story for The Coaster Online that did the investigative work, had no idea she was being photographed or even any idea Bruce was there. It just happened. It’s accidentally iconic.

On the “Miami Vice” director’s commentary, Mann offers no comment on the shot. It glides by unmentioned. And so I like to think that maybe there’s nothing for him to say. Maybe those thunderheads were the cinematic equivalent of Annmarie Solimini Adderley, in the right place at the right time. Maybe even the meticulous Michael Mann, stickler of sticklers, can occasionally be the recipient of a few minutes of serendipity.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015


Kimberly Levin's debut feature film, "Runoff", about a family under threat and featuring a marvel of an intense lead performance from Joanne Kelly opened last week. I adored it and whole-heartedly recommend it. It has a few third act problems but never mind those; its emotions are always full throttle and on point. I reviewed it for Slant Magazine. You can read that review here. Then try to catch the film by any means necessary.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Heaven Knows What

The prolonged pre-credits sequence of “Heaven Knows What”, directed by the Brothers Safdie (Ben & Joshua) tracks a distraught heroin addict, Harley (Arielle Holmes), as she threatens to commit suicide. She buys razor blades. She writes a goodbye note. Still, her junkie paramour, Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), won’t take her seriously. It’s fairly obvious this suicidal threat is a regular occurrence. He tears up her goodbye note. She tries to pen another one. He actively taunts her, knowing she won’t do it. But then, she does. The camera, like a jittery NYC street refugee peering over Ilya’s shoulder, gets in there as close as can be, and she puts that razor blade to her wrist and she cuts. Blood spews. It’s horrific. In another film this might have elicited the “Five Days Earlier” flashback. Not here. This is happening right now, before our very eyes, no before and no after. This film is purely the present.

That’s why we enter the film already in progress. What has brought Harley and Ilya to this life of homelessness and heroin is never explicated; it’s never suggested. The notion of what their respective pasts have wrought is of no consideration. They are dependent on their drugs, yes, but they are also dependent on each other, and on so many others. In fact, they spend much of the film apart as “Heaven Knows What” introduces a community of self-sufficient – in their own way – vagrant addicts. They argue constantly and swear incessantly, they issue threats and feign violence, though occasionally it spills over into the real thing, yet a very genuine screwed-up sorta love emerges. After her suicide attempt, Harley falls in with Mike (Buddy Duress), a crap talker who could have been a Goldman Sachs bro in another life, I reckon. He and she are more like verbal sparring partners than friends, yet they nonetheless help each other along. It’s a commune, really, whose common life centers entirely around scoring smack.

If heroin addiction is all about getting that fix, then that’s all “Heaven Knows What” is about – getting that fix. That’s the narrative. There’s some waxing, briefly, about the meaning of “real love”, but their stoned voices intentionally make it sound more like kids talking about cartoons. These characters don’t exist to be high; they exist to get high, and “Heaven Knows What” damn well knows the difference. There are no moments here of that tripped up bliss you so often see in drug movies. The closest it gets happens early, and even that includes a shot of Harley angrily screaming about nothing in particular. Joy is in short supply. This is un-romanticized hard-living, underscored by the camera work, which is street level handheld, perhaps out of necessity, but queasy and uninviting. They don’t want to invite you. They seek to push you away. This life, kids, isn’t for you. The only character who seeks to try and help anyone out of this virtual gutter, a big bear of a ball cap wearing dude, is told so often to go away, he finally does. He just walks the other way and right out of the movie.

This isn’t the escapades of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” or even the stomach-churning theatrics of “Requiem for a Dream”; this is a twenty-tens indie version of Kitty Wynn’s character in “Panic in the Needle Park” strung out and wasting away. It’s primal, powerful and, frankly, almost unwatchable. Its incessant immediacy yields intense advocacy.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Fugitive Kind (1960)

---I wrote this piece for another site several years ago but upon stumbling into the movie one recent night and being re-blown away, and considering it's the anniversary of Marlon Brando's passing next Wednesday, I thought I'd re-offer it today here at Cinema Romantico.

Based on a play by that great southern purveyor of gothic over-emotion Tennessee Williams, "The Fugitive Kind" (1960) stars Marlon Brando as a guitar playing, snakeskin jacket wearing lothario named, uh, Snakeskin who after a brief stint behind bars for his faultless role in a fiasco down Orleans way rambles into a poe-dunk Louisiana town on a dark and stormy night (literally), takes shelter at the city's ramshackle jail and finds himself explaining to the Warden-ess (Maureen Stapleton) that, you know, he just wants to put the guitar down for awhile and make an honest living.

She promptly introduces him to the spectacularly named Lady Torrance (Anna Magnani), theatrical proprietor of a general store, who agrees to give him the steady job he so desperately seeks. Alas, the straight life won't come so easy and he will also encounter blonde-haired wild child Carol Cutrere (Joanne Woodward) - more on her in a minute, a lot more - who knows Snakeskin from his previous life and exists in an effort to lull Snakeskin back to the wiles of the strings of the guitar.

Because this is Tennessee Williams, melodrama drenches the entire film like humidity in east Texas in the middle of July. This was an early directorial effort from the late Sidney Lumet and as his visual style was often simply not to get in the way (though there is one sequence where he does a bit of nifty trickeration with lighting during an, ahem, melodramatic monologue), the sensation of Williams lingers over everything. This Louisiana town is a town filled and run by men, evil, rotten, no-good men, so no-good that the perpetually sweat-ridden husband of Lady Torrance (Victory Jory) admits to having been part of the mob that killed her father years ago and which still haunts her. And yet even upon this admission people in the town - men and women! - still don't seem to quite grasp why she has such a beef with her spouse.

Thus, into this town of testestrone rides a most feminine man (as already stated, he plays guitar) who not only warms to Carol - such an outcast she's been banned from the county - but begins to maybe sorta romance Lady Torrance with Mr. Torrance right there upstairs. Lady wants him to remain by her side and Carol wants to whisk him back to the bright lights of the Crescent City. Should Snakeskin stay or should he go?

The young Brando is often thought of as a powerful actor, and that's true, but here he re-proves just what a national treasure he truly was back in the day by doing a 180 and spending the entire two hours as a tender, restrained, thoughtful man, someone who perhaps had that streak of rage in him once upon a time and now has locked it away. There are several moments in "The Fugitive Kind" that merely reinforce how Brando was born to recite Tennessee's material. That light-shifting monologue in the general store about birds that sleep on the wind which eventually leads to him telling Carol, not at all ironically "Fly away, little bird. Fly away before you get broke" is, in theory, the latter moment is sheer lunacy, but when Marlon just leaves you marveled. Magnani often seems to be acting as if she's onstage doing the play, not the movie, but I confess that may merely be a major personal bias because, well, how 'bout if at last we discuss Carol Cutrere and Joanne Woodward?

The brilliant film historian David Thomson has written: "I apologize if this seems too candid, or mawkish, for upright citizens. I recognize that it is a level of consideration that serious film critics seldom admit to. And, in one obvious way, it is an admission that could rule the critic out of the order. Yet, I hold to the admission because it is central to film, and to what happens in the dark. Ever since the beginnings of this strange medium, men and women have been drawn to the screen by feeling 'in love with' some of the huge faces put up there." And I mention this epic quote as a way to indicate that I must now take a moment to apologize to the late, great Paul Newman and advise that, sorry, sir, but I'm in love with your wife. Well, in love with a character your wife played.

Oh, they'll tell you the sexiest moment in cinematic history is, say, Ursula Andress emerging from the sea in "Dr. No" or Marilyn Monroe standing over the subway grate in "The Seven Year Itch", or something of the sort. They're wrong. They're all wrong. The sexiest moment in cinematic history is clear and undisputed and it is this: Brando gets in Woodward's convertible to drive her out of the county from which she's been banned and says "Move your legs to the other side of the gear shift." She moves her right leg, not the left. He says: "Both of 'em." Then she moves the left leg and gives him a satisfied smile and a slight nod that essentially says "How do you like me now?!" that makes me laugh as hard Lloyd Bridges declaring he picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue and makes Sharon Stone's little hoo-rah in the interrogation room in "Basic Instinct" is like a sexless episode of Degrassi Junior High in comparison.

A self-proclaimed exhibitionest who wants to "be seen and noticed and heard and felt", Woodward's Carol Cutrere is an ex "Christ-bitten reformer" and someone who once put on nothing but a potato sack and set out on foot for the state capital as a form of protest. Against what? Eh, she says, but that's not the really the point. No, the point was that she made the march to, you know, be seen and noticed and heard and felt.

Look up most descriptions of Woodward's Cutrere and you will typically find one of two words (or both): Nymph and Alchoholic. Maybe she's bi-polar. Maybe she's just crazy. Whatever, perhaps these are accurate, perhaps these are not, I think they're just lazy shorthand. I think she's a hot-blooded sentimentalist, someone who feeeeeeels everything. I love people who feeeeeeel everything.

There's a great many themes in "The Fugitive Kind", as there is with anything at the mercy of the pen of Tennessee Williams, but the theme perpetrated by Carol Cutrere was my favorite, and while it may be a theme as old as the hills, it is captured entirely through a hard-edged, perfectly melodramatic performance by Woodward. The Living and The Dead. Carol is re-banished from town at which point she promptly takes Snakeskin to a roadside honky tonk and delivers an exquisite, passionate, marching 'round the room monologue on the finer points of "jukin'" (Living) before then taking him to the "local bone orchard" and having a minor breakdown (Dead). And while it might be argued Snakeskin's ultimate fate was inevitable, I would argue the opposite.

Joanne Woodward tries to pull him toward the light of the living. He refuses. His loss.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Ardagh & Hartigan

Since no one else in Hollywood seems interested in so obviously putting Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts, friends-4-life, in their own buddy cop comedy we here at Cinema Romantico have decided to take it upon ourselves...

Fair Dinkum is a buddy cop comedy about two at-odds police detectives, a Sydneysider, Ardagh (Nicole Kidman), and a Melbournian, Hartigan (Naomi Watts), who must work through their contradictory attitudes and approaches to the job when they find themselves stranded in western Australia during The Wet and must siphon through an entire town's residency, Agatha Christie-style, to unmask a killer. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

In Memoriam: James Horner

The first time we see Rose DeWitt Bukater she is set to board the RMS Titanic, 882 feet of oceangoing hubris, and she is all done up befitting an engaged teenage girl in 1912. She’s got the shirt and the tie and the jacket and the skirt and the shoes and the wide-brimmed hat and the four-button off-white gloves and the umbrella. She’s a costumed representation of Victorian society, buttoned up, closed off, looking up at that big boat and haughtily dismissing it. But Rose wants out of this ornately stilted life. She’s threatening to burst. She doesn’t know who she is, not yet, but the real her is somewhere beneath all that fancy shmancy shit and she’s desperate to find it. She doesn’t know it but she’s building to the indelible moment when that carefree rogue Jack Dawson sketches her portrait, the one where she’s reclined san clothes, a tastefully nude embodiment of those Victorian shackles being cast aside. She’s undone. She’s alive.

That’s what makes the music during this sequence so celestially apropos. It’s Rose’s Theme, the motif accompanying her throughout, changing to fit the mood and situation and emerging arc of its namesake. In this moment, she’s unfettered, a free spirit with unspent passion to burn. And so, “Titanic’s” composer, James Horner, strips down Rose’s Theme to a single instrument – the piano, nothing more. And it’s wonderful, her essence in a melody. It’s melancholic but then pushing past it, like a musical version of that shot in “The Wizard of the Oz” when the sun lets through the gray clouds and illuminates the Midwestern sky. It’s elegant, risible and resilient. It’s her.

It’s a melody, of course, that was employed to concoct Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”, the lamented, overplayed, jejune dentist office radio ballad that even Kate Winslet – Rose herself – confessed makes her want to throw up. And fair enough. But. I was in that theater on December 20, 1997 long before the song became the pre-viral version of viral. I heard the melody as just itself, au naturel. I felt it. I remember it. I know what it meant. I hear it, or I just think of it, and I see Rose, rocket queen, as herself, fuck those aristocratic pre-conceptions, and I well up. “My job,” Horner said in an interview with The Los Angeles Times, “is to make sure at every turn of the film it’s something the audience can feel with their heart.” To some that might sound purple, to me it sounds perfect. He knew that “Titanic”, for all its stunts and effects and budgetary concerns, was principally the story of one girl; he knew “Titanic” was Rose’s movie.

James Horner, who passed away Monday night in a plane crash, was an incredible and influential composer, and occasionally for films that mean a great deal to me. His score for “Field of Dreams” was, I can tell you as a native Iowan, exactly right, low-key but mindful of something more always lurking within. The mixture of hope and sadness for his work on “Glory” was so exquisitely befitting of the 54th Massachusetts. But Rose DeWitt Bukater, unabashedly and unashamedly, is my movie hero; then, now and forever. And James Horner composed her theme. Few movie scores will ever mean as much to me. R.I.P


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Love & Mercy

There’s a shot in Bill Pohlad’s “Love & Mercy” that finds middle-aged Brian Wilson (John Cusack) seated in a restaurant booth with Miranda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), his future wife. The camera gradually slides in behind Wilson’s head but the booth’s set-up, small mirrors embedded in its wooden back, allow us to see the character’s face in reflection, the echoes of who Brian Wilson was and what he accomplished watching over him, whether he knows it or not, a past from which he cannot escape. That, however, is precisely why Miranda becomes the most vital person in his existence. As the shot is set, she sees him not through that reflection, like we do, but straight on, seeing him for who he is in that exact moment and nothing else. That, “Love & Mercy” reckons, is the quality Wilson needed most in his life to expunge the demons that for so long held sway, and those demons and their release is what “Love & Mercy” recounts.

Pohlad’s film succeeds where so many biopics have failed by not telling the story of the Beach Boys’ visionary linearly, by graduating from child actor to main actor to main actor in old-person makeup, but by blending two critical eras of Wilson’s life. It skips back and forth and time, though it’s not really Past & Present; it’s one united chunk of time because each period comes across wholly integral to the other, as if these two versions of Wilson are communicating across the years. Cusack’s performance, in fact, piggybacks gracefully on the performance of Paul Dano, both ably evincing a childlike wonder that is sullied by psychological distress and an overwhelming yearning to be loved.

In the mid-60’s, Wilson conceives and records his masterpiece, “Pet Sounds”, and there is something more beatific to these artistically creative scenes than movies of this ilk usually contain. Pohlad isn’t consumed with tying each innovation to some real world circumstance. You know, like June Carter tells Johnny Cash he can’t “walk no line” and, well, you know what song is being cut in the studio next. Rather “Pet Sounds” seems as spontaneous as thought out, a “mistake” by the pianist turning out to be something transformative, a joyful accident, and you feel that joy emanating from both the songs and from Wilson himself. Yet, you just as aptly sense the encroaching melancholy. Though the film is often too set on showing each mental disconnect immediately in the wake of some crisis, be it familial, personal or professional, as if a person simply can’t be this way despite emotional baggage, it nonetheless deftly employs sound as a means to convey his brewing crack-up. Beach Boy songs are often faintly heard, like ambient noise that may or may not actually be present, impressing themselves upon Wilson’s psyche, for good or for bad. What he has wrought undoes him.

Brian sits out from touring to record, more or less making the recording studio his home where he dreams up sonic soundscapes that his more formal-minded bandmates struggle to grasp while his father hovers with disapproving barbs forever looming on the tip of his tongue. In this context, the recording studio very much arises as his sanctuary, the place where he can convert the escalating voices in his head into something beautiful, where people – like The Wrecking Crew – offer him acceptance. In the mid-80’s, however, where the film’s parallel narrative takes place, Brian has lost that sanctuary. Now his room is an otherwise spectacular beachfront home is like a prison, and its warden is his self-installed protective guardian, a therapist fancying himself a psychologist, Eugene Landy.

Played by Paul Giamatti with a wig so bad its part of the joke that is the character, this is one of the instances in which “Love & Mercy” can’t quite transcend its genre stipulations. He’s pure evil, and maybe he was, but in this context the character lacks any sort of dimension. The film never quite adequately connects the idea that Landy was merely Wilson’s mental replication of his own father; rather Landy simply exists as the jowly monster from whose clutches Wilson must flee. Still, in its own way, this simultaneously betrays the impressiveness of “Love & Mercy”, showing just how rarely it needs to make marks on its Biopic Blemish Bingo Card.

Banks’ Miranda, in fact, at first suggests another archetype, the tortured artist’s savior, the woman who redeems our wounded protagonist with love, the yin to Landy’s yang. It’s not love she exudes, however, as much as selflessness, a steady shoulder to lean on in a universe that for Brian Wilson seems a dominion over-populated with conniving hangers-on and people for whom his prodigious brilliance is somehow still never enough. She embraces him, flaws and all, none of which have necessarily been “cured” by the film’s conclusion. It's why the last sequence, though perhaps contrived, is nevertheless an exquisite capper, an emblematic acknowledgement that the scars of his past psychologically linger. You deal the best you can and put one foot forward.