' Cinema Romantico

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

The Flick

Annie Baker’s Pulitzer Prize winning play “The Flick”, which is winding down a run at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater, where I saw it back in February, is set entirely in a rundown single screen movie theater, and opens with an overture – namely, the prelude to “The Naked and the Dead.” It heralds, as overtures do, the beginning, yet it also doubles as the end, because once it ceases the lights come up and two theater employees, Sam and Avery (Danny McCarthy and Travis Turner, respectively, in the Steppenwolf production), enter with a garbage can, brooms and dustpans, sweeping up while riffing, and sometimes not talking at all. Last year, in an interview with podcast hero Marc Maron, Baker herself described this moment “when the lights came on and the ushers came through and started shit-talking each other and sweeping up the popcorn. That transition from the magic, the time-machine of the movies into the crazy present tense...that, to me, felt so profound.”

The darkness of the movie theater, David Thomson has written, exists “so that the compulsive force of our involvement may he hidden.” When it’s dark, we feel protected within the filmed fantasy’s cocoon; when it’s suddenly bright again, we are released from the cocoon, exposed, figuratively naked. There is a reason why the most unnerving passage in all of “The Flick” doubles as the one that takes place when the lights are down and a movie is being screened, and that’s because the sacred pact of the cinema’s darkness is broken.


The rest of “The Flick” simply dispenses with the pact altogether, taking place after the lights have come up, when all the fever dreams by light of the 35mm projector have ended and all that’s left is spilled popcorn. In fact, much of “The Flick’s” is devoted to sweeping up popcorn, lengthy passages of Sam and Avery going up and down rows with brooms and dustpans doing menial work, occasionally pausing to talk shop with Rose (Caroline Neff at Steppenwolf), the projectionist, and sometimes not talking at all, simply allowing the noise of dustpans scraping against the concrete, over and over, to effect an astonishing workaday vérité. “The Flick” runs ten minutes over three hours and this is why. If infinite movies and TV shows, and whatever else, have claimed to chronicle the working day, none have so consistently, daringly and remarkably done so with this kind of authenticity.

But that length is deliberate. It draws you into the explicit mundaneness of “The Flick’s” world, becoming an ode to this kind of low-paying, un-eventful job where at-work friendships evolve and devolve, sometimes within a matter of moments, and so many conversations about nothing organically morph into being about something, or about everything, which Baker captures with an incredibly adroit ear. At one point, she has Avery recite a monologue from Quentin Tarantino's “Pulp Fiction”, giving it new meaning without appropriating it, an improbably deft trick, and the best implementation of a movie quote in any artistic context I can recall.

Above all, it is the place that defines this play. Baker could have set her story anywhere, at a dead-end retail job or a hotel lobby, but she chose a fading palace to the motion picture. In her landmark essay, The Decay of Cinema, Susan Sontag wrote of the movies’ “double start”, how the French filmmaking Lumière brothers sought to employ “cinema as the transcription of real unstaged life” while French filmmaker Georges Méliès saw “cinema as invention, artifice, illusion, fantasy.” “But,” as Sontag noted, “this is not a true opposition. The whole point is that, for those first audiences, the very transcription of the most banal reality was a fantastic experience. Cinema began in wonder, the wonder that reality can be transcribed with such immediacy.”

Anymore, movies seemed to have branched out in two polar opposites from those marvelous beginnings, seeking only to render either a fantastic experience or a banal reality, nothing in-between. Leave it to the “The Flick”, set on the stage, to capture completely the cinema’s original intention; Baker transcribes reality with such immediacy that it renders wonder.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Elvis & Nixon

“Elvis & Nixon” is based on the famous photograph taken in the Oval Office on December 21, 1970 of Elvis Presley and President Richard Nixon post pow-wow where the latter improbably granted the former his wish of scoring a badge from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. This meeting, however, was not recorded on Nixon’s infamous taping system, which would only be installed a few years later, and so “Elvis & Nixon”, directed by Liza Johnson and bearing three screenwriter credits, dreams up what happened inside the Oval Office walls, akin to Andrew Fleming’s “Dick” (1999) imagining what was said in those infamous 18 ½ minutes of missing tape.


Trouble is you can’t have a feature film that’s merely one meeting in an office, and so “Elvis & Nixon” is padded by a lifeless and obvious subplot involving Elvis’s aide-de-camp Jerry Schilling (Andrew Pettyfer, dull) having to decide what’s really important, a sequence in which Elvis visits a diner in a predominantly black neighborhood in some ill-conceived attempt to apologize for his appropriation of African-American music and myriad scenes of girls going gaga for the King. Still, for all the superfluousness, Michael Shannon’s lead performance as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll is so incredible, insightful and against type despite being the most notorious Americana archetype of all-time that it single-handedly warrants that too-long run time anyway, transforming a potential nonentity into something substantial.

The film opens with Presley home alone at Graceland, flipping through his wall of TVs, unimpressed with each offering, and finally, un-holstering his golden handgun and popping a cap in each screen. Then, he gets up and lights out for the Memphis airport, all on his lonesome, to catch a commercial flight, determined to take a meeting with POTUS. At the ticket counter, he displays his badge as special deputy for the Shelby County Sheriff’s office as his sole means of identification, even though everyone knows who he is, explaining that this is the first time he’s ever actually flown by himself. It’s a funny line but it’s something more; it’s the line that informs Shannon’s entire performance, one in which Elvis’s self-appointed seclusion from society caused this King’s place on the throne to gradually rot.

Shannon, obviously, does not physically approximate Elvis, but he doesn’t have to; he lets the clothes do the talking, providing an autopilot swagger inside them, as if his ready-made persona does the heavy lifting. As for the voice, Shannon does not do an impersonation, not exactly – it’s like, half an impersonation, like Elvis himself has starting imitating his own larger-than-life voice. When Shannon is made to say “It’s good to hold onto your dreams” to an impressionable young female character, he puts a spin on the words that makes them sound like a checked-out Elvis impersonator. In fact, there is a scene when Shannon’s Elvis comes face to face with a pair of over-the-top Elvis impersonators. That the impersonators fail to recognize Elvis for Elvis does not come across like a cheap joke but a deft evocation of how by December 1970 America recognized Elvis more as a caricature and less as himself.


Spacey has less time on screen than Shannon and is more content to root around in the already famous wackadoo nooks and crannies of our 37th President, honing in on the insecurity and the paranoia. And it is the paranoia where, improbably, both he and the King find a common ground in their tête-à-tête, both beset by an emotional seclusion that brings them together despite their running in extremely different social circles. It’s a strange scene, one that you keep waiting to get truly unhinged, or really ram home some overarching statement about our national condition, which it never does. And once it ends, the movie does too, because the movie doesn’t seem to have any other idea about how to end, essentially just disappearing in a puff of smoke.

That might be right. Despite his peddling the notion that he wants to help his country, you never really leave “Elvis & Nixon” convinced of Presley’s professed reasons for so desperately wanting a badge. Shannon plays him as a guy who thinks that the accumulation of all these badges might offer an escape hatch from the cocoon of his own celebrity, an existence from which he has already become detached, wandering through this entire movie as if he has already become a kitschy apparition.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Forgotten Characters: Camille, On the Road

My friend Andrew has a regular piece at his site, Encore's World of Film & TV, where he examines Forgotten Characters, those who made a significant impression despite minimal screen time. Today, I once again pay homage (rip him off), in honor of one of Cinema Romantico's all-time favorite actors whose celebration of birth is today.

Kirsten Dunst in "On the Road"
as Camille

Perhaps it's ridiculous to suggest that any character in a novel as seminal as Jack Keoruac's "On the Road" is "forgotten" but I dare say any wannabe beat such as myself who initially encounters the classic burst of run-on prose by the bard of the beats in his twenties reaches the last page with even half a thought of Camille. She was merely a speck dispersing in the rearview mirror, receding on the plain, collateral damage to a twenty-something idiot male tearing through "On the Road" while looking out on the drooping evening star shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie of the parking lot belonging to his apartment in Des Moines, Iowa where he wanted to believe whole-heartedly in the Dean Moriarty phantasm that his place of residence had the most beautiful girls in the world.

"We got what we needed," Sarah Vowell once wrote of Kerouac's most famous work, "namely a passion for unlikely words, the willingness to improvise, a distrust of authority, and a sentimental attachment to a certain America." All true. When you read "On the Road" at an impressionable age you take what you want and deny the rest. I remember reading it around the same time I first heard Eamon's "Fuck It (I Don't Want You Back)", a song from which I took what I wanted and denied the rest. Several years later, which felt like eons, I heard that song again and could only hear the winy self-involvement, the foul-mouthed vainglory, the cold-shoulder to introspection. "Christ," I thought to myself, "I could have been any more stupid? Or shallow? Or willfully ignorant?"

I felt like that when I caught up with Walter Salles' "On the Road" a good decade-plus after I first read the book and saw it as - to borrow the phrasing of Slate's David Haglund - "a pretty interesting work of literary criticism." It causes us, as Haglund notes, to "reconsider" Kerouac's book, and to reconsider it specifically from the vantage point of the women.

The first time we meet Kirsten Dunst's version of Camille, she is vivacious, in love with life, in love with Dean. When we catch up with Camille much later, she is no longer vivacious, in love with life, or in love with Dean. Now, because we have been on the road all this time with the dudes we are not privy to the change Camille has gone through. This means that when we return to Camille it is entirely up to Dunst to evince this change. She does.

I have a dear friend with two kids. Not long after she had the first one, I tagged along with her and her husband and the kid to their lakeside cottage in Wisconsin. At some point that weekend, after the little dude had run her ragged, she laid down on the couch, briefly, for like fourteen seconds, until the little dude re-sprang into her action. The look on her face as she laid there was a look I've only seen one other time - on Kirsten Dunst's face in "On the Road" when her tired eyes look up at Dean with such exhausted sorrow. And that's it. That's all Dunst needs to do to convince us of the all the years she has endured between her previous scene and now. Just one look.

And it's in moments like this where we see Dunst's absolute refusal to let Camille to fester as The Nagging Wife. In her exhaustion there is a strength, one so palpable that Dean recoils from it, because he knows he can't stand the heat, not like Camille, who Dunst, in a few flourishes, convinces us is too tough a cat to hang with this faux-macho weakling.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Summer Movie Preview: Best/Worst Case

I know, I know. It’s not even summer, you say! It’s April! It’s thirty-nine degrees with a chance of snow! How can it be “The Summer Movie Season”? Well, the summer movie season waits for no weather report. The summer movie season is a season unto itself, one that begins in late April and ends in mid-August, give or take, depending on how much expired product major studios have left sitting in their stock rooms and need to unload, thereby transforming the eighth month of a year into a dumping ground for perishable motion pictures that have, rest assured, perished. So suck it up. This is the once-great mattress we threw down underneath an on ramp and we have to sleep on it.

Happy Summer Movie Season!
The summer movie season of 2016 looks no different than any other summer movie season. Sequels, remakes and reboots, oh my, and something called The Angry Birds Movie, which I do not understand and will not address. Even so, summer movie season is a way of life whether we like it or not, and so we here at Cinema Romantico, as we do each and every “summer”, examine a few of the more extensive tentpoles from the viewpoint of what their best and worst scenarios could be. Join us, won’t you?

Summer Movie Preview: Best/Worst Case Scenarios

Money Monster (May 13). Best Case: The preview was just another infamous Clooney prank! Ha ha ha! The “Money Monster” refers to the name of Clooney’s yacht at his place on Lake Como where he and Jules film a Cary Grant/Grace Kelly-ish heist-ish trifle remarkable for its fluffy revelry. People wonder why in the hell these two have not been fronting films together for years. Twenty-five more George/Julia movies are commissioned. Worst Case: True to the trailer’s terrifying word, despite finally getting these two true blue movie stars back in a movie together, they are barely ever allowed to be on screen together at the same time.

The Nice Guys (May 20). Best Case: Shane Black proves to really be onto something with this “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” pseudo-sequel, every ten years releasing another one with a new leading duo, beginning with the 2025 release of “Hayride with Dracula”, starring Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts because finally someone grasps that these two need to be in buddy cop movie together. Worst Case: The film is so successful that Black is hired to helm the inevitable “Central Intelligence” (see below) sequel, “Federal Bureau”, starring Kevin Hart and Kevin Nealon.

The Buddy Cop movie of my dreams.
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (May 20). Best Case: Rose Byrne renounces Seth Rogen to join forces with Chloe Grace Moretz and Kappa Kappa Nu as the sorority crushes the fraternity. Worst Case: Seth Rogen & Zac Efron stop the Sorority’s Rising with minimal help from Rose Byrne, eliciting a “Neighbors 3” which functions as a crossover with “Old School” which becomes required viewing for all Skulls initiations.

X Men: Apocalypse (May 27). Best Case: It actually is the Apocalypse – the Superhero Movie Apocalypse, that is, and the screen will split apart like a scroll when it is rolled up, and every superhero and every superhero movie’s director were moved out of their places. For the great day of their wrath will have come, and who will be able to stand? Worst Case: The Apocalypse merely engenders a rebirth, with a re-booting of “X Men”, as all the principal characters are played by members of TNT’s cast of “Dallas” – call it, “X Men of Dallas.”

Central Intelligence (June 17). Best Case: As the CIA operative chasing Dwayne Johnson’s character, and in a nod to Michael Keaton in “The Other Guys”, Amy Ryan speaks almost exclusively in Boyz II Men quotes. Worst Case: It makes you remember at every turn that the trailer employed the lamentable phrase “A Little Hart and A Big Johnson” because it’s just that clever.

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We interrupt this summer movie preview to provide a still from the forthcoming “High Rise” (May 13) in which Sienna Miller apparently plays the character I have long dreamed she would play in a movie - that is, a cigarette smoking, martini slurping faded diva haughtily judging everyone from on high.


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Independence Day Resurgence (June 24). Best Case: Charlotte Gainsbourg plays the leader of a violent splinter SETI group. Cable Repairman David Levinson has, in the ensuing twenty years, found a way to break up the cable company monopoly. Russell Case, like Geppetto, Figaro and Cleo winding up alive in Monstro’s belly, is alive inside the remnants of the alien spaceship (please don’t ask) and returns to re-save the day. Worst Case: I don’t want to imagine a worst case for this movie. I just want this movie to be Emmerich good.

Ghostbusters (July 15). Best Case: The funniest stuff was deliberately kept out of the trailer, the rare delayed gratification Hollywood marketing ploy, and the movie soars as the quartet of female paranormal investigators don’t simply duplicate but duplicate and expand. Kate McKinnon becomes a damn star. Worst Case: That was the funniest stuff in the trailer. Projectile Vomit for everyone!!!

Star Trek Beyond (July 22). Best Case: Fed up with J.J. Abrams constantly referencing the past in previous “Star Trek” reboots, new director Justin Lin reboots the reboots, re-imagining James T. Kirk as a by-the-book intellectual, Spock as a piratical anarchist, Bones as a fiery stand-up comic, Scotty as an ex-member of the IRA, and Uhura as less Starfleet communications officer and more Naomie Harris in “Miami Vice.” Worst Case: Much like Benedict Cumberbatch turned out to be Khan (spoiler alert!) in “Star Trek Into Darkness”, Idris Elba turns out to be interstellar con man Harry Mudd.

Jason Bourne (July 29). Best Case: Fed up that the government has AGAIN employed some shady black ops to try and take him out, Jason Bourne decides his only recourse is to slyly spring a trap where he lures unwitting, dimwitted America into nuclear war with unwitting, dimwitted North Korea. They blow each other up. Jason Bourne lazes on a beach in the south Pacific with Nicky Parsons. Worst Case: As Jason Bourne lazes on a beach in the south Pacific with Nicky Parsons, a shady dude (Michael Sheen) emerges from the palm trees. The Moby song plays. The Shady Dude says: “Jason. Do you want to know what you really are?” Jason and Nicky sigh.

Suicide Squad (August 5). Best Case: Jared Leto saves his grandest prank for last, rigging it so that every digital projector in the world showing the “Suicide Squad” will automatically incinerate mid-movie. Worst Case: The movie rips the box office a new one. It so successful that producers decide to forgo the sequel and that sequel’s sequel eventually giving way to the reboot and simply making the reboot the sequel to the original.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Officially Withdrawing Our Cinematic Endorsement


It's old news by now, considering that it happened less than 48 hours ago, but we here at Cinema Romantico would be remiss in not also pointing out the Hoosier-land fiasco. That is, President hopeful Ted Cruz, politicking in Indiana, standing in the gym that "Hoosiers", my beloved "Hoosiers, made famous and employing my favorite scene in the movie, the famous scene near the end when Coach Norman Dale measures the court at Hinkle Fieldhouse, as a metaphor for his own campaign. Even here I begin to get suspicious because I always get suspicious when President hopefuls want to co-opt treasures of the cinema in an attempt to score political points. Except that in the case of Cruz it merely got worse.

"The amazing thing is, that basketball ring in Indiana, it’s the same height as it is New York City and every other place in this country."

That's what Ted Cruz said. In comparing "Hoosiers" to his own campaign he called a basketball hoop a "basketball ring." You want to give him the benefit of the doubt; you want to say he misspoke; you want to say it's not that big of a deal. And it's not that big of a deal, not in terms of actually electing a President, which I get. But. Cinema Romantico cinematically endorsed Ted Cruz. And Cinema Romantico cinematically endorsed Ted Cruz because we chose to believe that Ted Cruz's affection for "The Princess Bride" was real. Because who lies about their favorite movies?

I'm beginning to suspect that Ted Cruz lies about his favorite movies. He's trumped up "Hoosiers" as a favorite movie too, but this whole "basketball ring" seriously calls that into question. You can't have actually watched "Hoosiers" more than twice and not know it's not a basketball ring. Furthermore, you can't have watched "Hoosiers" more than twice and accidentally call a basketball hoop a basketball ring. Even a slip of the tongue wouldn't somehow convert basketball hoop to basketball ring. No, this stinks to high heaven of watch-a-Youtube-clip-quick-before-you-take-the-stage. And if Ted Cruz did lie about a favorite movie all in the name of political gain...well, there can be no higher act of treason in the eyes of Cinema Romantico.

Like the old West Wing poet-in-residence once said, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me...you can't get fooled again. And I won't. Cinema Romantico hereby withdraws its cinematic endorsement of Ted Cruz and bestows it, however pointlessly, on Jeb!, our fellow Ricky Bobby devotee, instead.


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Breaking Down the 2nd ID4: Resurgence Trailer Reaction Shots

As Cinema Romantico has previously noted with unbridled joy, "Independence Day", that rollicking barrel of absurd movie monkeys, was all about the reaction shot. Roland Emmerich puts his actors in front of the camera and tells 'em an alien ship or a fireball or a something-or-other is up in the sky and "ACT O.M.G.!" And they did. And they did in the first trailer for the mildly-awaited "ID4" sequel, as Cinema Romantico broke down several months ago, and they did again in the second trailer for the mildly-awaited "ID4" sequel that just dropped last week. My hope is that this is but a tiny taste of the all-you-can-eat reaction shot salad bar to come...

Breaking Down the 2nd ID4: Resurgence Trailer Reaction Shots


Oh yeah! Brent Spiner is back, baby, and he is looking suitably spazzed! (Also, note Bill Pullman's out-of-focus reaction shot in the background. Even when he's not the focal point of the frame, he's reacting. What a pro.)



Serious Goldblum.



Bewildered Goldblum.



I don't know who she is but good to see she got the Reaction Shot memo that I imagine Emmerich handed out the first day of shooting. 



When you've been through the shit once before, you keep your composure the second time around.



I might have imagined this one.



Good to see Patricia's got that famous Whitmore resolve.




This is a strong variation of the traditional "A distress call?" reaction.



Group Reaction Shot, with additional bunny ears, which can only foretell wondrous things.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Phoenix

Christian Petzold’s noirish 2014 thriller “Phoenix”, which is released today as part of the Criterion Collection, is based, loosely, on a 1961 novel by Hubert Monteilhit. And the film nods at “Dark Passage” (1947), in so much as its protagonist’s face is surgically reconstructed, and it nods even more at “Vertigo” (1958), in so much as it finds a man re-shaping a woman into the woman he once loved even though the woman he’s re-shaping is the woman he once loved. But whatever its influences, “Phoenix” erupts into its own thing, which, as chance would have it, is what “Phoenix” is all about, reclamation of identity, re-possession of one’s self.


As “Phoenix” opens WWII has ended and Nelly (Nina Hoss), a German-Jew, has survived a concentration camp, albeit with a horribly disfigured face, put there essentially by her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) who sold her out lickety split to the SS to save his own hide. Dude’s a rascal, no doubt about it, but Nelly can’t bring herself to believe he would have turned coat, and when a surgeon presents an opportunity to re-construct her face into something else entirely, making her someone else completely, she declines. “I want to look exactly like I used to.”

Her face winds up as close to exactly as it was as is possible, and rather than fleeing the nation, she tracks her beloved Johnny to the Phoenix, a nightclub where they used to work, and where he is now busing tables, eking out a post-war living in rubble-strewn Berlin. It’s like the last chance saloon in some sci-fi western, and Petzold shoots its red sign so that it smolders, the embers of a Nazi nation.

He recognizes her - eh, kind of. He recognizes her as someone who looks an awful like his ex-wife, the one who vanished into the camps and presumably died. But, as he explains, he can get his hands on her inheritance if they can pretend this woman really is his wife (which she is). Is it a stretch to believe that Johnny wouldn't know this woman despite her facial reconstruction really is Nelly? Not necessarily, because the way Petzold films it, and the way Zehrfeld plays it, suggests a subtle knowingness and a simultaneous repression, a refusal to accept what's right in front of them, and emblemizing a desperation for so many Germans to instantly move on in the wake of what has happened, a scrubbing of all things from the past.

And so what comes to transpire, while very straight-forward, effortlessly opens up into so much more, an exploration of identity on both a personal and a national level. And even if you can, as they say, hear the gears of plot grinding, that’s part of the point; if we block out the noise of those gears to so often indulge in movies on the screen, so too do Nelly and Johnny block out the noise of their semi-obvious reality. And what they feel is communicated in the moments where they linger, with a look, with a word, like they know, they sense it, and rather then latch onto it, they are content to let it go.


It’s a film that functions as an allegory, one that is forever teetering on being too insistent, working as nothing more, and yet the characters’ respective situations are all so much a part of their surroundings that the political fuses impeccably with the personal. And while the title is a hit-you-over-the-head metaphor for rising from the ashes, it is no less apropos, and made effective by not forcing the film’s protagonist to carry the weight of the entire nation on her shoulders. No, the political here is personal, and a reminder that everyone in the wake of Hitler-induced rubble had to shake off his sizable vestige.

That shaking off is brought home in the film’s powerful, unforgettable concluding sequence, the details of which I will not reveal, and simply say that it is not German absolution but one woman’s salvation, a persecuted person who has been forced to hold her breath for a decade or more suddenly able to......exhale.