' Cinema Romantico

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club

Outside the Midwest, the neon glow near a highway typically translates to a diminutive nondescript motel, the kind that looks left over from the Eisenhower Administration and still advertises “Cable TV” like that’s a big deal. In the Midwest, however, and especially in Wisconsin, that roadside neon glow is just as likely to indicate a Supper Club. It's a term you think nothing of in these parts where I’m from and continue to reside, until you get outside of these parts where “Supper Club” becomes a term of perplexing inscrutableness. As my girlfriend’s father, a lifelong east-coaster, put it when she texted him to say that we were going to see a documentary centered on Wisconsin Supper Clubs: “Huh?”

Well, if “Huh?” is your stock response to supper clubs too, rest assured, Director/Producer/Editor Holly De Ruyter is here to grant some perspective with her 51 minute documentary “Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club.” De Ruyter grew up just outside Green Bay, Wisconsin and therefore has an intimate history with the establishments in question, and delightfully takes the long way around in explaining what a Supper Club is, who it's for and why it endures.

The Old Fashioned of the title refers to three things. It refers to the Old Fashioned itself, a cocktail, always made with brandy, not bourbon or whiskey, which traditionally begins the meal and ends the meal. It refers to the history of the supper club itself, one that goes all the way back to Prohibition, which explains their predominance along rural highways and back roads, places you wouldn’t even think to look. And it refers to the dining experience itself, one of a more, to quote Ben Kenobi, civilized age, when a meal was not simply What You Ate but an Experience Shared. That latter point is the film’s central one.

De Rutyer visits numerous supper clubs, most with appealingly kitschy names and varying décor meant to approximate the individual owners’ respective tastes, and interviews myriad Supper Club proprietors and patrons, all of whom hone in on one detail more than any other – namely, to what degree the Supper Club fosters community. I lost count of how many times the phrase “Chain Restaurant” was employed in a politely derogatory way, meant to approximate the modern dining experience in the Midwest where convenience and speed take precedence over settling in and hanging out.

And that’s why “Old Fashioned” itself was sometimes at odds with the expressed mission statement of Supper Clubs. De Ruyter keeps the documentary moving at such a swift pace that you almost wish she abided more by that code of decelerating life’s wearying advance to really hunker down and take your time. Though many people get a turn to speak, you sometimes wish there fewer interviews and more eavesdropping, opting for a fly on the wall approach, allowing the Supper Club ethos to simply wash over us rather than being explicated by a series of occasionally repetitive talking heads. Even so, the primary initiative of “Old Fashioned” is Supper Club outreach, and at this De Ruyter succeeds by espousing those virtues with so much Midwestern mirth, never more so than with the starmaking couple of William & Judy. He never talks, she talks a lot, and together they illustrate a folksy comfort in their relationship that resembles the kind of folksy comfort inherent to the Supper Club itself.

It might seem like little more than a niche film, specifically catered toward the audience like the one I saw it with at the Gene Siskel Center here in Chicago, only 50 miles south of the Wisconsin border, where a good chunk of the audience seemed to already have personal relationships with places seen on the screen. Still, the film’s sermonizing is so breezily heartfelt, so earnestly welcoming, that I half-suspect that even if it was screened in, say, New York City, half the audience might be tempted to rent a car and cruise upstate, scouring the Catskills for a goyish place to get a brandy old fashioned.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Big Stone Gap

“Big Stone Gap”, which was written and directed by Adriana Trigiani, based on her book of the same name, opens with a voiceover by Ave Maria Mulligan (Ashley Judd) enlightening us to the particular qualities and quirks of the titular coal mining town in the mountains of Virginia where she grew up. And though she’s referring to her childhood in the 50’s, when the movie flashes forward twenty years a few moments later, hardly anything seems to have changed from what Ave Maria has just described, as if here in Big Stone Gap the 50’s just kind of blended with the 60’s which just kind of mixed with the 70’s. Why they continue putting on the very same play, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, they have always put on, as if any modification of the past by send the populace reeling. I mean, would it kill these people to try “Our Town”? Just once?! This lends a frozen-in-time feel, one that could easily come on like nostalgia, the a syrupy sensation that there is no place like home, and while that is there in doses, it is tempered by Ave Maria herself, a character who mostly defies the sugary confection by fearing that in all those years that passed from the voiceover to now, life itself has passed her by.

Ashley Judd is incredibly equipped to play these sorts of roles, vacillating between genuine joy and understated melancholy with the greatest of ease, often within the same scene, occasionally within the same moment, like the instance when she’s eating cake while standing up, listening and half trying to ignore another person spouting twaddle while taking great comfort in just snacking on that chocolate dessert. It’s sort of her entire state of being in capsule; having to shut out so much nonsense swirling around her, finding resolve from within, or in a plate of calories, of which there seem to be an awful lot. After all, she’s forty year olds and – egads! – not married. This, however, is more a concern of the town folk than the screenplay itself, which gives Ave Maria the willingness to fight back against that sort of Hallmark Channel hogwash. At one point, in fact, Ave Maria is referred to as Mount Vesuvius, standing there placidly, yet waiting to erupt, that eruption spurred by all the gossip pertaining to her relationship status. Often in Judd’s eyes you can see that eruption brewing. The question is, will it come?

Eh, yes and no. Much of the plot hinges on her friendship with Jack (Patrick Wilson), the local coal-mining hunk with solid sideburns, who clearly loves her, but hitches himself to Sweet Sue (Jane Krakowski) instead even though she’s clearly wrong for him and knows it, while Ave Maria hitches herself to Theodore Tipton (John Benjamin Hickey) even though he’s wrong for her and she knows it. Still, this isn’t a case of simple Idiot Plot, the characters having to wear invisible blinders to the truth, He wants the simple life that Big Stone Gap offers, which he sees in Sweet Sue and not Ave Maria, because Ave Maria is clearly itching for something else, and has been for a long time. Home Is Where The Heart Is, and All That Jazz, but sometimes you still have to Go Walkabout, and “Big Stone Gap”, for all its easy-bake storytelling, still has the gumption to know that Ave Maria is not the kind of character who would fall into the conventional narrative trap of sticking to the path rather than wandering into the deep, dark forest.

At least, it seems like it does, which is where “Big Stone Gap” goes off the rails. Though the film is set in coalmine country, you never really the soot on the faces of the miners, just as the one mine “incident” is less about the inherent dangers of that perilous industry than a drawn out excuse to put Ave Maria and Jack together. And this is fine, of course, because “Big Stone Gap” isn’t “North Country”; it’s a warm-hearted romance, one made with so much granulated sugar, food coloring and flavor extract, but still. And yet, this setting, which emits a sense of “place” in the early-going, begins to feel more and more staged as the film progresses, especially as all the characters around Ave Maria suddenly begin pulling strings in order to prevent what she seems to so desperately want. By the end, when everyone gathers in the town ampitheater, determined to keep Ave Maria right where she is, Big Stone Gap felt more like Seahaven, and I began to fear that Ave Maria was simply starring in her own version of The Truman Show.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Ipcress File (1965)

As “The Ipcress File” opens, British Intelligence Agent Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) is in some nondescript London flat keeping some unnamed person across the street under surveillance. It’s not glamorous. He looks more like a properly groomed shut-in then a secret agent, which is how the film’s producers, Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli, wanted it. They were the team responsible for the James Bond franchise that had only recently achieved liftoff, and so Mr. Saltzman and Mr. Broccoli sought Len Deighton’s novel to make “The Ipcress File” as antithesis to the idealized exploits of Agent 007. They employed director Sidney J. Furie to craft a spy caper less sexy than tedious, comprised not of exotic locales and charming bad guys and beautiful ladies but dreary London locales and interchangeable stuffy British intel agents.

This was Michael Caine’s first starring role and it’s fairly impressive how un-determined he is to make it star-making. Indeed, if James Bond’s omnipresent grin is playful, the omnipresent grin of Harry Palmer is mischievous, occasionally even lurid, like a brief moment where he checks out his female co-worker. TCM indicates that Christopher Plummer was the original choice for the role, which I find ironic because throughout “The Ipcress File” I kept thinking of Plummer as a bank robbing psychopath in “The Silent Partner.” That’s not to say that Caine’s Palmer is a psychopath because he’s not; but the imperious tone they both project is eerily similar. The character of Palmer, after all, is only here on account of orders, a checkered past, and Caine plays straight to that idea, evoking a cocky indifference to all this administrative intelligence humdrum. And oh, is there a lot of humdrum.

Palmer gets transferred to a civil intelligence unit under the command of Dalby (Nigel Green), a smarmy bureaucrat. If everyone else in the unit is used to his obnoxious officiousness, Palmer, the fussy raconteur, is not. He does things his own way, as he must, which gets into him escalating amounts of trouble, with Dalby and pretty much everyone else, as he finds himself waist-deep in determining who has been draining the brains of several highly intelligent, highly important English doctors. This brain drain concept, however, subtly emerges as the same condition of all the agents in Dalby’s charge, transformed into mindless order-following drones on account of filing so many secret agent TPS Reports.

But don’t let all this talk of reconnoitering ennui fool you into thinking its some formally bland enterprise. It’s quite the contrary as Furie does up “The Ipcress File” with all kinds of photographic chicanery, so much that I’m dying to see its shot list because I can’t imagine the plethora of shot descriptions that Furie cooked up with his cinematographer Otto Heller. These descriptions would say things like: “From behind Harry Palmer” and “From behind an easy chair” and “From behind a plush couch” and “From behind a wooden pew” and “From behind a lampshade” and “From behind a tape recording reel”. It seems as if nearly every single shot in this movie is from behind something, or off to the side of something. There are many tilted camera angles, a la “The Third Man”, and often the camera is set far below or high above its character, but usually it is stationed behind something, evoking bugs or surveillance cameras or whatever other technical doo-hickeys well above my pay grade that intelligence organizations employ to keep watch. Everyone here is being watched, like Big Brother, and in his own way, Harry Palmer emerges as the UK’s answer to Winston Smith.

Because the film is 50 years old, we will throw caution to the wind and refrain from issuing a persnickety spoiler alert in advising that British Intelligence is – egads – brainwashing its own, attempting to transform them all into variations of Reggie Jackson in “The Naked Gun.” Palmer determines the ruse, yet becomes ensnared it anyway, literally fighting back against the brainwashing, although he’s figuratively fighting back against it every step of the way with his deadpan insolence, winning on both counts, a hero if there was over one. This is a one spy movie that has less to do with figuring out Who Did It than Hacking Through Red Tape.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Cinema Romantico's Cannes Brûlé Palme

As always, Cinema Romantico was unable to attend the Cannes Film Festival on account of scheduling conflicts pertaining to the Big 10 Track & Field Championships and the fact that the only outlet willing to grant us accreditation was Horse & Hound. But, of course, this inability to walk the red carpet be chased off the red carpet will not prevent us from officially bestowing the un-exalted Brûlé Palme, this blog's variation on Cannes' prestigious Palme d'Or, awarded each year to Cinema Romantico's favorite Cannes Film Festival attendee.

And so, following in the footsteps of past winners such as Kylie Minogue and Bill Murray, this year's recipient of Cinema Romantico's non-notable Brûlé Palme is.....

Kristen Stewart's Eyeshadow

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Faux Review of Money Monster

During my junior year of high school, my English teacher forced us to keep daily diaries. The friend sitting next to me in class took this as the cue not to pen confessionals but as an opportunity to explore the virtues of criticism. This to say, he would take whatever book we might be reading for class, randomly open it to a page, select a sentence, any sentence, and then construct a review of the book itself solely on the basis of that single sentence. I thought of this the other day when I clicked on A.O. Scott’s review of Jodie Foster’s “Money Monster” for The New York Times. Because there to greet me was a still from the film, this still……

I had no plans to see “Money Monster”, as I kinda, sorta documented, because I kinda, sorta feel like putting Julia Roberts and George Clooney in a movie together and then not having them be in the same room most of the time is like having a bottle of Vodka and a bottle of Kahlua on your liquor shelf and keeping them apart and away from the cream. And after seeing this still…I really didn’t want to see it. I wanted to imagine this still is the movie. I wanted to write a review based entirely on this still. So I did.


As Lee Gates, a financial guru who hosts his own Wall Street business news cable show, and has been plagued by guilt ever since 2008 for steering so many loyal viewers directly into the effects of the financial crisis, George Clooney is surprisingly short of gravitas and all in on gaiety. Indeed, while the set-up for “Money Monster” seems ripe for an ode to 1970’s stalwart “Network”, with Gates as a kind of CNBC-ish Howard Beale, descending into revealing mania as he shouts at his audience, the “The Big Short” as brutish parable, director Jodie Foster forges an oddly opposite path. It forgoes solemn sermonizing for something saccharine instead, as if Squawk Box was hosted at a 1950’s soda fountain. Foster turns the title “Money Monster” into something of a joke as Lee Gates and his loyal assistant Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), who might just like him, and who might just like her, are faced with budget cuts and then layoffs and then the rumor that, yes, their beloved television show is going to have its plug pulled. What to do? Well, to save one show, Lee and Patty decide to put on another show!

In other words, “Money Monster” re-imagines George Clooney & Julia Roberts as Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland. Of course, when the latter put on a show, circumstances intrinsically never felt all that dire, no matter the specific problem they were trying to solve, deliberately and blissfully remaining ignorant to any genuine societal context. And as Lee and Patty assemble a ragtag band of minor business cable news personalities to star in their telethon to save Money Monster, they are merely expending so much effort to continue a broadcast that will continue to feed viewers information that will continue contributing to another escalating crisis that will no doubt eventually implode, the film remains deliberately, blissfully, strangely ignorant to this societal context, an inadvertent capitalist revue. Songs like Anything Can Happen at the Bank of New York and Chin Up! Portfolio! Carry On! strive for sincerity rather than mocking irony, and the concluding shots of loyal viewers at home pulling money out of their mutual funds to ensure Lee and Patty hit their fundraising goal are treated with blatant heroism, the orchestra swelling, Lee and Patty hugging, crying and, finally, yes, kissing, beneath the sight of Monopoly money falling from the ceiling like confetti.

It came across like such a sick joke I could only stare and wonder, is this real?

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Measure of a Man

There is a moment in Stephane Brize’s “The Measure of a Man” when Thierry (Vincent Lindon), a laid off factory employee is attending some sort of training session at a workforce center where he is videotaped giving a fake job interview so his performance can be graded by his classmates. It does not go swimmingly. His expression, his posture, his voice, all of it is unflatteringly dissected in excruciatingly matter of fact terms, a moment from which the perpetually understated Lindon effortlessly wrings so much pathos, taking it all personally because how can his character not? One unemployed peer reckons that Thierry’s whole nature exudes an attitude of having already given up. Maybe he has.

This is “The Measure of a Man” through and through, where seemingly every scene, filmed in long, unbroken takes so similar to those social filmmaking crusaders The Dardenne Brothers, becomes a referendum not simply on Thierry’s place in a wrecked economy, where his age and experience have somehow left him both overqualified and underqualified, but who he is as a man in choosing how he deals with it. This causes every moment to feel fraught with tension, not just real world job interviews, Kafkaesque nightmares instilled with false hope, but even moments that should exist as respites, like interludes at the dinner table where he chomps his food, breathing through his nose, where you can practically feel him about to explode.

His family is what keeps him going, and the shame he feels from struggling to support his evelopmentally disabled son Mathieu (Matthieu Schaller), thankfully portrayed as a real person rather than an ideal. The character of Katherine (Karine de Mirbeck), however, Thierry’s wife, is left wanting. Certainly she bears part of this financial trauma too, yet the narrative’s tunnel vision keeps her as nothing more than a cipher rather than an equally intimate player in this crisis.

Yet, at the same time, the film is very much about Thierry becoming isolated in his own mind on account of professional failings. In one sequence he attends a dance class with Katherine, and the instructor forces Thierry to repeatedly perform the same dance move until he gets it down, which Lindon conveys with a quietly tense self-imposed pressure, as if even here his character is attempting to offset all occupational setbacks with personal triumph. And when “The Measure of a Man” pivots and Thierry finally lands a job, his isolation merely increases.

Working as a security guard in a supermarket, he and his associates are forced to detain thieves. None of these burglars are masterminds, just elderly people on tight budgets trying to bend the law to get by. If that slants the story to dial up Thierry’s internal dilemma, so be it, and no encounter is more excruciating than the older man who, along with a pile of products he paid for, pockets a few slabs of meat. When offered the chance to call someone to come down and pay for the meat to avoid involving the authorities, the older man says he has no family and friends; he’s all alone. The camera, as it always is in these “interrogation” scenes, is at Thierry’s back, like he’s looking in the mirror.

In a way, Thierry’s role as a security guard becomes a wry twist on the stock role of Good Cop, one who stands for virtue in the face of corruption. Because while Thierry, eventually made to bust co-workers circumventing rules, is abiding by what’s right, it still comes across, to him, as morally dubious, knowing that he and those he’s ratting out are essentially standing at financial eye-level. And so when he inevitably takes a stand, it still feels impotent, heightened by the way he does it, giving up and walking away rather than passionately calling it out, suggesting that the true measure of a man is where he stands at times of challenge and controversy is a vacuous slogan best left to coffee mugs in the airport gift shop.

Monday, May 16, 2016

A Bigger Splash

“A Bigger Splash” opens in the midst of an idyllic interlude, on the island of Pantelleria, off the Italian coast, where Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), an arena-level rock star, New Romantic David Bowie with Chrissie Hynde hair, has come with her ruggedly handsome paramour Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) for some r&r. It is bliss, all scenery and sex, topped off by mud baths and lazing on the beach, where their paradise is suddenly invaded by a big old jetliner roaring just overhead, artificially clouding their sunny skies. The plane carries Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes), Marianne’s former producer and flame. Though there is much talk throughout the film of a Sirocco wind kicking up on the island, the real wind is Harry, a Hall of Fame motor-mouth, sans an off switch, who rambles into this movie already in the midst of spewing sentences, and gets himself invited along to Marianne and Paul’s pad despite the latter’s clear aversion to his idea. Harry is best emblemized in a later close-up of his bright white teeth, glittering in terror as they prattle on at 180 beats per minute, which they consistently do. In real life, this guy might drive you to jump off a cliff; in “A Bigger Splash”, he is an unstoppable life force, the straw that stirs this drink.

Harry brings with him twenty-something-ish Penelope (Dakota Johnson), whom he has only just learned is his daughter. She is something of a nymphet, striding around almost exclusively in short shorts, but also a paper-thin blank space, the kind invented, customarily by wanton males, for the sole purpose of exuding erotic temptation. She entices Paul, yes, but also Harry, who alternates between being thrilled that she’s his and wishing she wasn’t; not because he wants to ignore her, mind you, but because, well, she’s a nymphet in short shorts. If that sounds a tad tawdry for your tastes, perhaps “A Bigger Splash” is not the cinematic experience for you.

It is also not the cinematic experience for you if you enjoy hearing Tilda Swinton, who can be so deliberately precise in her pronunciation (see: “Michael Clayton”), talk. That is because her character cannot speak, on account of surgery to repair her blown out vocal cords, forcing her to communicate non-verbally, with askance glances and tilts of the head. Swinton is up for it, of course, not simply because she’s a grand thespian, which she re-clarifies by conveying an orgasm without making a single sound, but because she instilled this challenge herself, specifically asking that her character be written without a voice. That means her inability to converse is partly for show, but it also means that Harry becomes the principal aggressor of the murky plot, especially because Paul is simply a stand-off-to-the-side-and-brood sorta guy.

For a good hour, hour and a half, director Luca Guadagnino is content to allow Marianne, and Paul, and Penelope to be dragged along in Harry’s choppy if boisterous wake, never more so than a delicious sequence in which Harry expounds upon a recording session he helmed with The Rolling Stones that emerges as front-runner for Monologue of the Year and paves the way for a musical number, of sorts, in which he goes gleefully berserk in singing along to the aforementioned band’s “Emotional Rescue”, a Fred Astaire dance number as re-imagined by Andrew Loog Oldham. As Harry cavorts, he tears out of the villa, toward the pool, up onto a ledge, a man devouring life whole, which Fiennes plays with an uninhibited exhilaration, though at other points he makes clear this exhilaration masks plenty of melancholy and regret.

Harry is a character that doesn’t really think beyond Now, like when he crashes his convertible and simply abandons it. The movie forgets about the car, which isn’t a narrative flaw but emblematic of how “A Bigger Splash”, which is based on the 1969 French film “La Piscine” (which I have not seen), is best when it plays like a lascivious shaggy dog story. Alas, each of these characters is strapped to a bomb, whether it is Harry and Marianne’s former love that might still simmer, Paul’s checkered past or those short shorts of Penelope begging to come off for the sake of titillation. Each bomb is required to detonate, and as they do, “A Bigger Splash” devolves into a strange brew of Italian soap opera by way of Wife Swap by way of Lifetime crime drama. It’s only worsened by attempting to connect the plight of migrant refugees, which are merely glimpsed once in the form of a TV news report, to this quartet’s white privilege.

If Guadagnino agrees they are stricken by white privilege, he also doesn’t care, evinced by the Inspector Closeau-level of investigation that goes on in the concluding sequences revolving around a death at Marianne’s villa, a We Know Who Did It Whodunit? in which the tone oddly wavers between sarcasm and seriousness. None of the actors here seem to be singing in precise harmony, not like they were earlier, which can perhaps be attributed to the character of Harry being moved out of the picture too early, which might legally constitute a spoiler but so what? Even if you know he dies, which he does, triggering “A Bigger Splash’s” collapse, that will make it more important to remember as you are watching to embrace Ralph Fiennes’ majestically frenzied performance while it is allowed to live.