Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Age Of Reason

There is a time in the life of every teenage boy, often on the precipice of adulthood, particularly if social interaction is limited, when angst and rage consumes him, and his outlets for its necessary release are scarce. Thus, he drives around and listens to loud music and talks back to his parents and breaks shit. He wants out but there is nowhere to go. Maybe with a little luck and motivation, he’ll fashion the first draft of a life plan, or at the very least find a way to make peace with his duress and simply put one foot in front of other. Maybe he'll find the courage to seek his dream. “The Age Of Reason”, directed with notable assurance by Andrew Schrader and Jordan Harris (they also wrote the script), is about a pair of teenage boys caught in that ancient state of adolescent limbo, and who come across less like best friends than two loners trapped in cookie cutter suburbia recognizing something of himself in the other, clambering toward self-actualization.

Set over the course of seventy-two hours, Friday to Sunday, evoking the youthful sensation that a weekend can feel like forever, we follow Oz (Myles Tufts) and Freddy (Blake Sheldon), the former without a mother and the latter without a father. Freddy, his appearance unkempt and grungy, accentuated by the fact that he literally digs around in trash, as if he figures that’s where he belongs, is without a father and filled with pent-up rage, stuffing food in his face in a desperate attempt to quell it. Oz, with his shaggy hair and blistering fastball, yearns to be the next Tim Lincecum. That daydream, however, runs aground on the bullishness of his father, Robert (Tom Sizemore), self-medicating with a bottle, and determined to prevent his son from ditching home for what he perceives as a fairytale Major League tryout in Nashville. Besides, how can Oz run away and leave his little sister (Avi Lake), outfitted in nearly every scene with a leotard in a bit of spot-on costume design, who is at the wondrous age where teenage agony seems so far away.

There is a girl too, Ruby (Megan Devine), because there always is, but don’t presume that she comes between the boys in a simplistic teenage love triangle, as it turns more on mere connection than any kind of popcorn love. Saddled with parental problems of her own, like an ornery stepfather whose attempts at connection are ill-advised, she recognizes something of herself in them, and inadvertently they form a sort of therapy group where rather than talk out their feelings they are willing to let each person exist on his or her own terms.

The recurring motif in “The Age Of Reason” is destruction; destruction of both a physical variety, whether it’s the opening sequence of Oz and Freddy bashing up a car or Freddy, in a weirdly hysterical moment, trashing the bike of a neighborhood kid for no reason whatsoever, and an emotional variety and the torment it yields which is emblemized in Oz’s broken down father. Ultimately their relationship becomes the film’s most crucial. He deters his son’s dreams not from spite but from a genuine fear that Oz’s brashness will lead him down the same dead-end road, oppression as a form of protection, which in its own way is as oddly admirable as it is it deplorable. And Sizemore, carving out subtle notes amidst the endless hangovers, strikes that difficult balance with a withering dignity.

The concept of baseball as saving grace could have been rote, a more lo-fi version of “The Rookie”, but baseball is merely the vessel by which the film explores the age when reality has begun beckoning even if we are not yet ready to relinquish our dreams. They say youth is wasted on the young but “The Age Of Reason” is about characters finding the conviction not to waste it any longer, to get out, to leave the old world behind, to see what a new one may have to offer, and to reach for the stars. Whether they latch onto them is of no consequence.

Monday, July 21, 2014

They Came Together

One of the most memorable movie-watching experiences of my life happened on some nameless Iowa spring night in the early 80’s. It was a seemingly endless evening of thunder and lightning and tornado watches and even the occasional tornado siren, and with the siren always threatening to beckon, I was allowed to stay up and lay on the couch and watch a movie as we waited. The movie was “Airplane!”, the epic spoof movie of Team ZAZ. I had never laughed so hard. And here’s the thing, I did not – could not – get all the references. I had never seen “Zero Hour” nor “Airport” nor even my future beloved “From Here To Eternity.” And it didn’t matter. When Robert Hays parades into the disco club, it’s a nod to “Saturday Night Fever”, sure, which I had not seen, but the sequence also breaks free of the pan to do its own thing. “Airplane!” was a landmark not simply because it skewered something with such specificity, but because it invited everyone in to share the laughs.

David Wain’s “They Came Together” seeks to spoof the the romantic comedy, a once mighty genre which has lately devolved more or less into a minefield of clichés. To be fair, Wain is not simply cutting and pasting whole bits of other films with minor “comic” addendums like the Aaron Seltzer & Jason Friedburg Chop Shop. Instead he gathers up the bounty of nauseatingly familiar rom com tropes - your Meet Cutes, your etc. - and then insistently presents every last one of them in such a way as to make their obviousness the punchline.

Framing the film as a dinner table tall tale of "How did you two meet?", Joel (Paul Rudd) and Molly (Amy Poehler) tell the story of their kinda, sorta true love over dinner with friends. A synopsis should go here, of course, but a synopsis is virtually pointless if you've seen any Katherine Heigl or Kate Hudson film of the last decade, or "The Shop Around The Corner" for the classics majors. They begin in the midst of faux conflict. The conflict cedes as they fall for one another. The false crisis intrudes. The happy ending arrives on schedule. Well known actors keep turning up for cameos. So on and so forth, but with jokes that go from tame to lame to clever to medium raunchy to raunchy to utter ridiculous. And while a few of the jokes are wholly original, like a Halloween costume gone wrong, the majority of them simply involve demonstrating a particular rom com cliche and then acknowledging out loud the cliche being demonstrated. This phenomenon becomes "They Came Together's" most prominent motif, and it's not that these moments wreak of being self-impressed, though they do, but that pointing out an absurdity is not the same as being absurd. It's like watching a screenwriting manual that tells you what not to do being acted out in front of you.

As a deconstruction of a genre, "They Came Together" really doesn't go far enough. It assumes that by simply identifying the genre deficiencies, it's done its job; and that would it be okay if it provided comic analysis or took the deficiencies and then spun them off into something new - a la "Airplane!" Instead they just lay there while the actors smirk. It's not a critique and it's not a spoof. It's just smug.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned(s): Up the Junction (1968) & Bang! Bang! You're Dead! (1966)

Oh! Well, hello there! I thought I might be extra generous this festive Friday morning and serve your regular Old Fashioned with a second Old Fashioned at no extra charge, compliments of the house. What do ya say?! I wrote about a couple sorta passed-by older films for PopMatters recently and figured I'd direct you over to them at your leisure.

"Up the Junction", starring Suzy Kendall, is definitely worth a look. I dug it. It's about Then, but it's also about Now. Review Here.

"Bang! Bang! You're Dead!", starring Tony Randall, eh......not so much. But still. Read the review. If you want. No pressure.


Thursday, July 17, 2014

5 Potential Cinematic Butter Sculptures

Well, you probably heard, the Iowa State Fair this year will feature a Field of Dreams made out of butter. Wait, on second thought, why on earth would you have heard that? Never mind. Doesn’t matter. The point is, the Iowa State Fair, famous and frustratingly known for its Butter Cow (which is, unfortunately, exactly what it sounds like – a cow sculpted out of butter), will feature a replica of the baseball diamond Ray Kinsella built just for Shoeless Joe carved out of butter alongside the dairy-based ol’ Bessie.

It’s no secret I despise the Butter Cow. Iowa has an acreage of great things, and I’m not just talking about Donna Reed’s Oscar (though I have – many, many, many times). Chicago’s great and all but Zanzibar’s Coffee makes Intelligentsia – fine, though it may be – taste like the dispensed swill from Dennis Duffy’s Coffee Vending Machine. Even so, what people do people in Iowa want to talk about? The State Fair. And what at the State Fair do they most want to talk about? The Butter Cow. They talk about that damn thing like it’s the Pietà. And it drives me loony. To quote Rob Corddry in “Butter”: “Oh, and newsflash, butter’s bad for you!” Still, if this is the road, State Fair “taste”makers, that you wish to go down, creating Iowa-based film items out of butter, who is better qualified to submit other future ideas than Cinema Romantico, a film-obsessed native Iowan? No one, that’s who. So I’m gonna help here. Because I feel it’s my civic duty.

5 Potential Cinematic Butter Sculptures

Butter Deansie & The O Fox, “Cedar Rapids” 

“Cedar Rapids” centers around an innocent insurance salesman played by Ed Helms, but what stands out is the failing-to-act-your-age antics of his cohorts Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly) and Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), better known as Deansie and The O Fox. I mean, is that not the best duo name of all time? Would you not join their wild west posse? Sure, sure, Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid is pretty good, but it’s Malone & Stockton when compared to the Jordan & Pippen that is Deansie & The O Fox. In fact, I am desperate to see this butter sculpture. I would legitimately be excited to see a Butter Deansie & The O Fox. This needs to happen. (Note: It will not happen.)

Butter Patrick Bergin Moustache, “Sleeping With The Enemy” 

Yes, yes, yes, Madam Julia Roberts starred in “Sleeping With The Enemy”, wherein she moves to scenic Cedar Falls to escape the titular enemy, played by Patrick Bergin. But what do people really remember? Madam Julia? Or Patrick Bergin’s Moustache? The defense rests, your Honor.

Butter Kat Araujo, “Mystic Pizza”

Annabeth Gish, as I have noted before, was born in Albuquerque but moved to Cedar Falls when she was all of two years old and spent all her formative years there. Why she was still officially a Cedar Falls resident when she filmed “Mystic Pizza” with what’s-her-face, and that’s why there should be a Butter Kat Araujo. Because Iowa is not Daisy. Iowa is Kat. *Thumps chest.*

Butter Spring Break Massacre Sorority House 

Portions of 2008's “Spring Break Massacre”, of which IMDB reviewer innocuous wonders “I'm a bit unsure about why exactly this movie was made” were filmed in scenic Dubuque, Iowa, and featured……hold on, what’s that? My apologies. Iowa Governor Terry Branstad is telling me to tell you “this movie does not actually exist in terms of ‘Iowaness’. The state of Iowa is formally rejecting claims that any parts of it were filmed within its borders. Please remove it from your list.’” So, uh, never mind! Nothing to see here!

Butter 76 Trombones, “The Music Man”

I’m sort of surprised to learn this particular butter sculpture has yet to happen. Granted, it’s gonna take a lot of butter but hey, it’s Iowa! It’ll be epic! It’ll take up a quarter of the fairgrounds! It’ll be the Synochdoche, New York of butter sculptures!

Butter Sugar Santos, “Sugar”

Admittedly, most people, Iowans and others, will probably look suspiciously at a Butter Sugar Santos like it’s the high-falutin’ Des Moinesean who just walked into the one bar in all of some 500 person town in the northwest corner of the state, but so be it. Because look, Iowa already has the Best Baseball Movie Of All Time (“Field of Dreams”) but it also has the Second Best Baseball Movie Of All Time, which is “Sugar” (not all of which but a good and crucial portion of are set in Iowa). Yes. “Sugar.” If you blanch at such a proclamation, you haven’t seen it. If you accuse me of Iowan bias, you’re not necessarily wrong, but you are wrong, because “Sugar” is just that freaking good. And different. If there was ever a movie that deserved to be called “a breath of fresh air”, it’s this one, because it doesn’t merely turn baseball movie clichés on their head, it takes baseball movie clichés and runs them through the wood chipper. It’s magical but also unsparing, and utterly brilliant. And really, be honest now, what’s more Iowan than Sugar made out of Butter?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Saying Goodbye To [redacted]

"Dragon clouds so high above 
I’ve only known careless love 
It’s always hit me from below 
This time around it’s more correct 
Right on target, so direct 
You're gonna make me lonesome when you go."

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Life Itself

“The movie lyrically and brutally challenges us to break out of the illusion that everyday mundane concerns are what must preoccupy us. It argues that surely man did not learn to think and dream, only to deaden himself with provincialism and selfishness.” This is what the late Roger Ebert wrote admiringly about “2001: A Space Odyssey”, Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film that has inspired much divisiveness, not least because it so acutely resists the trappings of a traditional movie. But Ebert, as he so often could, saw outside those trappings, and saw not simply a movie but an experience, a sort of cinematic treatise on life and all that gargantuan, stupefying, beautiful subject entails. “Life Itself” is not “2001: A Space Odyssey”, of course, but while its subject is Ebert himself, perhaps America’s most well-known and beloved film critic, it is determined to peer outside the box of that groundbreaking criticism to – as the title implies – examine a man’s entire existence, and how that existence shaped and continued to shape the way in which he went to the movies.

Eschewing a chronological tale following its subject from birth to the end, the film grounds itself in the present. Steve James, the auteur of “Hoop Dreams which Ebert lauded, was tasked to craft a movie not simply looking back on its subject’s past, but looking at him as he lived now. He had suffered, of course, for several years from cancer, having his lower jaw removed, losing the ability to eat, drink and speak, and would be hospitalized for a fractured hip not long after James began filming. Five months later, Ebert would be dead. So while “Life Itself” works as a marvelous elegy and testament to a wide-reaching legacy, it is not simple sentimentalizing. It shows Ebert deep in the throes of sickness, and while it is comforting to think of him writing and watching movies up ‘til the tragic end, the film lets us know better. One of the toughest passages involves James recounting how near the end Ebert, his pain getting worse and worse, essentially went Email Silent. “I can’t,” is all one message says. Yet “Life Itself” is not just about the ravages of disease, but an honest account of human complexity.

Ebert’s alcoholism is addressed. His penchant for stubbornness and selfishness if he struggled to get his way is remarked upon. The dueling notions of his TV review show, Siskel & Ebert, and its Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down slogan becomes a crucial theme. While in real life Chaz Hammelsmith, who became Ebert’s wife, was likely the most vital supporting character, on film and in the public consciousness it was Gene Siskel, the Chicago Tribune film critic who passed away in 1999. The two were authentic foils, sharing intense dislike of the other, if not also a certain reluctant admiration, trading punches and trying to score points. Their relationship is not candy-coated but presented as it was – a stealth rock fight that unfolded on syndicated TV. And that rock fight gave birth to many questions about the validity of its format. Jonathan Rosenbaum, in particular, film critic at The Chicago Reader laments how it reduced the scope of his field to Good or Bad. This is true, though it is also pointed out how the format of television inherently resists nuanced approach. Which itself begs the question as to why they would do it, and the answer is that it allowed them to preach the cinematic gospel to so many more people and champion the causes of littler films.

One of those films was Ramin Bahrani’s “Man Push Cart”, a severe indie its maker begged Ebert to see. The critic did and gave it a rave and subsequently befriended Bahrani. This begets other movie business relationships, such as those with Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog, and illustrates how in spite of his stance as a critic, he fostered relationships with those whose art he was made to judge. That is another tricky issue from which “Life Itself” refreshingly does not shy away. Didn’t Lester Bangs say you can’t make friends with the rock stars? He did, and perhaps he was right. Perhaps Ebert’s critical eye waned a bit as he got older. The New York Times brilliant film critic A.O. Scott admits as much, pledging the opinion that Ebert was a tougher critic when he was younger.

I'm inclined to agree with that viewpoint, yet I'm just as inclined to suggest that as he got older, Ebert transformed into less of a critic than an ambassador, a notion that “Life Itself” quietly captures. He was an ambassador for cinema, absolutely, standing up for various films and filmmakers, but he was also an ambassador for aspiring film critics and for recovering alcoholics and for people coping with illness and for people who just dug putting pen to paper (fingers to keyboard). Everything he seemed to see in those last few years, and every word that came tumbling out, was reflected through the prism of his collective experiences.

At some point he stopped writing solely about movies and just started writing about life. Then again, isn't that what he was always doing? Aren't those two ideas interchangeable? “Life Itself” persuasively argues yes.

Monday, July 14, 2014


Is it coincidence that in the year of our Lord 2014, two films chronicling all of mankind stuck aboard an ark, one based on Scripture, one based on a graphic novel, would be released, or is it kismet? Well, this is Cinema Romantico, of course, and so you know full well what I think. It’s quite clearly kismet, not merely a matter of “these things come in twos” (read: “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon”) but a reckoning at the film de cinema. Look no further than your current box office behemoth, “Transformers”, which heralds the “Age of Extinction” on the theater marquee. Has cinema chosen to punish man for the hubris of its collective sins, to openly opine whether God or Whomever has forsaken us, or to ask if we have been begging for this end of days for some time now? Perhaps, and yet Darren Aronofsky's “Noah”, released in March, in spite of its Old Testamentness, still retains that pre-ordained White Dove Optimism, which is why “Snowpiercer”, the English language debut of acclaimed Korean director Bong Joon-ho, in spite of being an action-adventure exercise as much as a socio-allegory, might actually, improbably, appropriately be even darker. Which makes it the perfect summer movie!!! (Wait, I might have just dredged up the wrong catchphrase. Nevertheless.)

Of course, as Genesis recounts, Noah's ark was commissioned by the Lord because the Lord was fed up with mankind's wicked, wicked ways and so He wished to flood the earth but keep a few people and a smattering of animals to re-populate the species once the waters subsided. In "Snowpiercer", the Lord is nowhere to be found. He apparently realized mankind had reached a self-annihilation point on its own; kick back on the celestial veranda and shake Your head while those you have created muck it all up. An attempt to snuff out global warming in the not-too-distant future before it takes us down for good (and oh to see the mockumentary about the election of the President who convinced enough of Congress to believe in climate change to fund this scientific endeavor) has obligatorily gone horrendously awry, triggering another Ice Age.

All of humanity has been killed off, save those who made it aboard a colossal train (“the rattling ark”), ensuring their survival, but doomed to ride in a perpetual circle on a track to nowhere expect for where they’ve already been for the rest of their lives. And that perpetual circle also reveals itself in the train's class system because what is the world if not a perpetual circle of the Haves vs. The Have Nots? Strand a dozen people on an elevator and a class system would emerge within ninety minutes.

To maximize empathy, "Snowpiercer" starts us in the rear with the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free, dressed like more modern "Mad Max" extras and penned in like cattle, and fed about as well too. Curtis (Chris Evans, smartly downplaying) emerges as their General Washington-esque wrangler, understanding that the uprising against their fancy pants oppressors must be perfectly timed. And when they finally go, they continue to go, battling their way through locomotive car after locomotive car, a clever conceit that allows for an eternally evolving landscape. The further they progress, the more hedonistic the reverie, the more distant their own world becomes, and a scene in which they breach the compartment of a Berlin-esque techno club of debauchery is a modern day twist on the sequence in “A Night To Remember” when the steerage passengers aboard the Titanic breach the first class dining room.

Ah yes, the Titanic, everything in storytelling comes back to her. What was the Titanic, really, but the 1% vs. the 99%? (While we’re here, can’t you see Bernie Madoff dressing up as a woman and carrying his portfolio aboard a lifeboat?) And so much how the Titanic forevermore became a White Star Line metaphor regarding the classes, “Snowpiercer” yearns to turn its train into a metaphor for modern times.

Fictional retellings of the unsinkable ship often illustrate social castes obviously and clumsily. Even James Cameron’s version, which I love as much as anyone, is guilty, transitioning from the unlovable rich in the smoking room to the charming poor dancing below deck. And the well-heeled villains of “Snowpiercer” are not afforded much dimension, though perhaps Joon-ho believes their excess doesn’t leave much room for dimension. The 99ers, however, originally trumpeted as saints are slowly revealed as having sins of their own, partially in the security expert (Song Kang-ho) who craves drugs but especially in a bracing monologue deep into the film delivered by Curtis that seems to out our whole species, for richer or poorer, as nothing more than selfish survivors.

This idea is crystallized in the man known merely as Wilford, responsible for maintaining the train’s engine and, by extension, all of civilization. His eventual reveal both problematically grinds the movie to a halt, as exposition blooms in an elongated sequence recalling “The Matrix Reloaded”, and lets its message flower in full. This barreling locomotive is Wilford’s kingom and he is its god, and so maybe god is present throughout “Snowpiercer”, just in the way that men themselves like to play him. The Titanic has become the go-to allegory for mankind’s hubris and how the world that hubris has created will go under, leaving everyone regardless of class to thrash and freeze in its wake. That is why “Snowpiercer” turns out to be as much an oceanliner as an ark, a new century parable, if not potentially a foreteller of the beginning of the end – mankind’s hubris leaving us all to thrash and freeze in its wake.

Or maybe just be eaten by polar bears. God did create them first.