Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Final Scene of Mission: Impossible Space Vertigo

In all the hullabaloo regarding the 117,000 superhero movies greenlit over the course of the next 75 years what got lost was the announcement that Tom Cruise would be starring in another 5 “Mission: Impossible” movies over the next 20 years. The final film, slated to be titled “Mission: Impossible Space Vertigo” will be helmed by a Finnish director you haven't heard of because he hasn't made a movie yet.


One of Cinema Romantico's most trusted sources was able to get his hands on a copy of the “Space Vertigo” screenplay, and the last scene's twist is so delicious I was left with no choice but to share it. And while I hesitate to divulge this information for fear of reprisals from both the studio and the Cruise Camp, well, I think when you see the “twist” I’m talking about you will agree it was worth the risk. The final scene has been re-printed below with no embellishments…

EXT. SPACE ELEVATOR - 96,000 KM ABOVE EARTH

Ethan Hunt dangles from the tippy-top of the elevator, wearing a space helmet that, somehow, still allows his flowing locks to dangle to just below his neck, as Aarne Klaus, in a jet-black spacesuit, floating weightlessly, taunts him from just above.

Ethan looks down, Earth spinning just below him, its atmosphere ready and willing to incinerate him should be fall.

Klaus rears back with his pugilistic space gloves and slams into both of Ethan’s desperate hands. 

With a defiant yell, Ethan lets go and falls, falling and falling toward Earth. Nothing can stop his ultimate demise now.

INT. FLANAGAN'S COCKTAILS & DREAMS - MANHATTAN - PRESENT DAY

BRIAN FLANAGAN, leaning against the back counter of illuminated liquor with a mop in hand, is dozing while standing up. Seeing this, his wife, JORDAN MOONEY, smacks him with a wet dish towel.

JORDAN: Hey. Dufus. You were sleeping on the job again.

BRIAN: I just had the strangest dream. I dreamt that I was a special agent in the IMF.

JORDAN: IMF? You mean, like “Mission: Impossible”? The old TV show?

BRIAN: Yeah, exactly.

JORDAN: Was Peter Graves there?

BRIAN: I think so. But he looked more like Jon Voight.

JORDAN: Jon Voight?

BRIAN: And I was married to that girl we saw in “True Detective.”

JORDAN: Maggie Hart? You were married to Maggie Hart?

BRIAN: It was really weird. My personality kept changing. And the tone of the whole dream was just like......all over the place. Like, I was slipping in and out of different dreamscapes created by different people. They were so uneven in quality. It felt like I was at this dock in Sydney for, like, 127 hours. 

JORDAN: No more daiquiris for you before bed. By the way, one of the regulars threw up in the bathroom again. Too many whiskey sours.

BRIAN: (sighs) I’ll get to it.

JORDAN: Cocktails and dreams, eh, Bri’?

Brian shuffles off. In the distance, from the jukebox, or perhaps an old transistor radio, we hear “Aruba, Jamaica ooo I wanna take you / Bermuda, Bahama come on pretty mama”…

FADE OUT

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

John Wick

“John Wick” is like a John Woo film made by a very cerebral Team ZAZ, Le Samourai with a doctorate in Mel Brooks. It’s a stoic farce. It embraces every last trope of Gun-Fu genre to the hilt, right down to its mockingly serviceable title, a placeholder for any veteran of the action thriller crusades wishing to lampoon his image by being deadly serious about it. Enter: Keanu Reeves. He grimaces through the entire production like he doesn’t get the joke, which is apropos because he’s the straight man in a wildly stylized sketch.


As the film opens, his wife (Bridgit Moynihan) has just passed away from an unnamed disease, and all we see of her are fleeting images on John Wick’s smartphone where she floats in the technological ether, the place, I assume, we all go these days when we die. Her spirit, however, lives on in the form of a precious puppy she scheduled for delivery to her husband ahead of her passing. Alas, we get but a few scenes this adorable canine before it is unceremoniously stomped and killed by an arrogant son (Alfie Allen) of a Russian Mafioso who then steals Wick’s car and beats him up real good only because he has no idea his victim is John Wick. See, John Wick, we learn, isn’t The Boogeyman – he’s the dude you send to execute The Boogeyman. He’s a retired hitman of the highest order, once in cahoots with Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), the arrogant son’s pops, convenient sort of plotting that “John Wick” turns with a good-natured guffaw.

The world here comes across wholly, intentionally insular, as if it’s only populated with bad men or bad men trying to be good. I half-suspect that Bridgit Moynihan was akin to Claire Forlani in “Mystery Men”, wherein you can’t help but wonder how in the hell she wound up in Champion City. When John Wick decides to re-enter the game he says it’s “personal”, not business, because he has to, but it feels as if he was simply chilling in his home with the plethora of open space and ginormous windows that’s just begging for a shootout and hoping, praying, that someone will stir something up so he could go on a rampage.

World-building is the film’s high point. Consider the hotel where Wick checks in, the Continental, sort of a B&B spin on The Facility of “Cabin in the Woods.” It is not so much a hideout for assassins and hit men as a known refuge, a luxuriously accommodated safe zone lorded over by a majestically suave Ian McShane where there are strict rules about no killing and leaving your business associates to themselves. Lance Reddick runs the front desk with a twinkle in his eye, a performance that is sitting on a two-hour backstory, and frankly, “John Wick” might have been absolutely stellar as its own version of “Casino” (“Continental”?) in following this palace’s rise and inner-workings.


Almost as good is the neon-lit bathhouse where John Wick begins his quest for retribution, a crisply concocted sequence scored majestically to Kaleida that evokes an other-worldly sensation the rest of the film’s unfortunate hard-rocking soundtrack does not. He dips and darts through the elaborate set, dispatching nefarious dudes with bullets and karate chops as blood splatters and limbs break, looking like a dancer in an electronica ballet. It’s freaking heaven, and if the main character’s invincibility is obvious, well, duh. Of course, it is! The film revels in that obviousness, underscored by the deadpan shot of Tarasov in front of a fire with a glass of cognac, awaiting the inevitable, more or less writing off his son’s life even though he knows he has to try and avenge him anyway. “John Wick” takes bad guy code to the extreme.

Then again, that’s also its downfall. After about an hour the film’s style and cheeky humor begins running on fumes, and just sort of gives way into the worse aspects of the product with which it’s been carousing. Oh, the obligatory finale in the rainstorm looks good, yes, but it’s devoid of the rambunctious spirit of the preceding hour. It’s just duplicating moves, not duplicating and expanding, and so it thuds to a disappointing conclusion. It’s one vacation you wish would have taken place entirely at the hotel.

Monday, March 23, 2015

71

Melding the politically charged docudrama style of Paul Greengrass's “Bloody Sunday” with the elegant commotion of his two entries into the “Bourne” series, Yann Demange's feature film debut “71” is a full-blown frenetic chase movie with political overtones. It lso bears much in common with Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down”, a recounting of The Battle of Mogadishu, in as much as “71” follows a British Private, Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), inadvertently left behind by his unit in the middle of an op gone bad. Yet “Black Hawk Down” took great pains to justify America's presence in Somalia in the first place – “that’s not war, that’s genocide,” Sam Shepard helpfully councils. There is no such explanation in “71”, not to us, and particularly not to Hook. Prior to his fateful mission, the plan of attack is hardly made clear, and is illustrated on a map with the dividing line in Belfast between areas of Protestants and Catholics and, well, what else does anyone need to know? And besides, in this context, what do those demarcations even mean? At a delicate moment, Hook is asked which one he is, Protestant or Catholic. He admits he has no idea.


The film’s introductory sequence include Hook’s time in boot camp, and all we see is him crawling through the mud and being yelled at by the drill sergeant. Ideology is immaterial. Do what you’re told. And they will, as the film quickly moves to the inciting incident, a troop deployment to a hostile area in which the tension is raised swiftly, piercingly, as locals beat to arms with garbage can lids against the cement. Within moments a mob has formed, spitting, cursing and cajoling the British army, a sequence in which Demange effectively documents how powerless a cluster of heavily armed men can sometimes feel. Suddenly, a young boy lifts a soldier’s machine gun and runs away with it, and Hook and another British Pvt. are dispatched to retrieve the weapon. In the ensuing confusion, Hook’s cohort is shot dead and the army is forced to hastily abandon its position. All alone, and with a pair of armed IRA sympathizers on his tail, Hook runs for his life.

The sequence owes a significant debt to Kathryn Bigelow’s back-alley “Point Break” foot chase, one which is more fluid and steady as well an unwitting reminder that at the movies, dependent upon a filmmaker’s acumen, the plight of a bank-robbing surfer in a Reagan mask can be rendered just as affecting as a British soldier on the run because of The Troubles. Still, Demange’s remix of that sequence is effectively gripping, the kind that draws you in so subtly and forcefully that you lean forward without even knowing it, hanging on every hairpin turn. And when it’s over, it only gets worse, as an Englishman finds himself essentially abandoned in a nighttime apocalyptic hellscape, one of burning fires and eerie voices and befuddling loyalties, like he’s Snake Plissken in “Escape From Belfast.”

What follows not only pointedly refuses to lionize its protagonist but resists brazenly demonizing those on his tail. Case-in-point: Sean (Barry Keogan), a teenager embedded in the posse hunting Hook, is afforded a crucial flourish of backstory in the form of an apparently peaceful home life where we see him helping his young sister with homework. It’s a slight but indelible stroke suggesting that in spite of all the turmoil there is still a choice to be made about the way one leads his or her life.

Historian Douglas Brinkley once wrote “the only way to understand D-Day fully is as a battle at its smallest: that is, one soldier and one reminiscence at a time.” In effect, that’s what “71” does, showing The Troubles at its smallest, one soldier and one (fictional) reminiscence. O’Connell never plays the part with the inevitability of an action hero, but with honest fear for his survival and confusion of the situation into which he’s been thrust. The people and places and shifting alliances his character are made to face become confusing, yet that’s precisely what makes them effective. That he's all alone isn't just a device to raise the dramatic stakes but a rendering of each individual's place in a war over which they have no control, tangled in a web of flummoxing politics. By the end we find ourselves rooting not simply for the protagonist to emerge with his life, which oddly begins to feel almost inconsequential run up against the machine of war, but with his virtue.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: I Never Sang For My Father (1970)

“I Never Sang For My Father” believes in the myth of fingerprints. Gil Cates’ cinematic interpretation of Robert Anderson’s play has seen them all (people, that is) and, man, it knows they’re all the same. It plumbs the tricky psychological depths of fathers & sons, well-wrought territory that nonetheless transcends that familiarity with a story that knows every man is his father’s son, whether he wants to admit it or not. It centers on Gene Garrison (Gene Hackman), a fortysomething widowed playwright who no doubt crafts each of his stage productions around some sort of paterfamilias concept. His father, Tom (Melvyn Douglas), is a very accomplished, well-respected man of the community, but less accomplished, not-as-respected man within the walls of his own house. He’s the sort of man who gets a look at a copy of his son’s new play and immediately criticizes the author photo, wondering why his son is looking away when a real man looks you in the eye.


Well, Gene rarely looks his father in the eye. He harbors resentment toward an unhappy childhood, one that resulted in his father sending his sister (Estelle Parsons) away. He harbors fear of his father, illustrated in how he struggles to admit his plans to re-marry and move across the country to California. He harbors regret, about not forging common ground with his father, and about not feeling affection for his father. It’s like he’s a moon caught in the orbit of a patriarchal planet, spinning around and around against his will.

His father, meanwhile, pushes Gene away even as he manipulates him into always being around. These conflicting ideas are traced directly to his dad, a drinker, an irascible man whose affection Tom never earned, and now he has consequently thrown away the affection of Gene by being irascible in his own way. That’s the film’s remarkable through line – three men who could not be more different are somehow all the same, and none of them have ever found the means to square with it.

“I Never Sang For My Father” is obligated, of course, to bring this unadmitted standoff between The Old Man & His Son to the brink, and it does so through the death of Gene’s mother and Tom’s wife, Margaret (Dorothy Stickney). That piece of plot advancement might seem obvious, even a little insulting, what when considering it brings her onstage just so it can kick her right back off. But the script knows that Tom’s greatest fear and has him externalize when he admits to Gene he always thought he’d first. He thought that because that’s what he wanted. If he died first, he was off the hook, spared the agony of confronting the friction between him and his son, and the friction within himself. You half suspect that Margaret, that sly old fox, knew this too and decided to expire simply as a means to effectuate their inevitable showdown.


Confronting all this means confrontations, of course, and frankly, the direction of Cates works best when he simply embraces the theatricality of these confrontations and sets a couple shots and lets his actors have it. His occasional zoom-ins and zoom-outs feel like “uh, we need to do SOMETHING” artifice and a late game sequence in which Gene visits a nursing home as a possible place to move his father is composed like a horror film, an aesthetic device that feels like its intruding on something much more solemn. The dialogue, meanwhile, often recited in extended monologues or prickly back-and-forths occasionally gets too on-the-nose. “I hate him,” Gene says of his old man, “and I hate to hate him.” That type of explication permeates the film, lines already made evident in the performances, and so half the time you feel like you’re watching this film from the perch of a second couch in a therapist’s office. But, what a damn therapy session!

Hackman was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar (Douglas was nominated for Best Actor) which is basically absurd, like an evocation of the roles themselves. This is Hackman’s film, through and through, and for no greater reason than his essentially playing two roles. With his father, he’s a passive pushover, mumbling, shuffling, looking down, around, here, there, anywhere but at his old man. Away from his father, steam practically billows from his ears as he says and does everything he can’t bring himself to do around his old man. The duality is depressing, and only made worse when, in the climactic scene, both roles are forced to run right into one another. It’s only taken four decades for Gene to finally call out his old man, and when he does, it’s all for naught, the film’s impressively dire admittance that making peace is not necessarily the same as having peace-of-mind.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

30 for 30: I Hate Christian Laettner

Alexander Wolff, in recounting for Sports Illustrated perhaps the greatest college basketball game ever played, summarized the contest’s most important player, Duke’s Christian Laettner, this way: “the plot honored the cardinal rule of good storytelling – don't make the hero a one-dimensional character.” Laettner was the hero, yes, in so much as he sank the winning shot but he was also the villain, a designation earned by stomping on Kentucky’s Aminu Timberlake who was defenselessly sprawled on the floor. Laettner may have already been the most reviled player in the sport but this was the singular moment cementing his legendarily maleficent status, the stomp seen around the world. In the ensuing years, no matter what defense anyone raised for him, you could roll that clip and say “Yeah? So?”

In Rory Karpf’s inflammatorily titled “I Hate Christian Laettner”, the latest entry into ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series, the titular subject says he stomped on Timberlake because he thought Timberlake had pushed him, only to realize later he’d singled out the wrong guy. That sounds like a roll-your-eyes justification. Except Karpf shows the moment to which Laettner is referring when, sure enough, a Kentucky player blindsides Laettner, shoving him out of bounds and to the floor. It is, if we’re all being honest with ourselves, more malicious than Laettner’s stomp. That’s not to excuse Laettner, of course. After all, it’s a classic case of Second Guy Gets Caught. Yet, it muddies the pictures, and it crystallizes the intent of “I Hate Christian Laettner”, which seeks not to exonerate the man for whom it’s named but add extra dimension to his story.


How did this one person come to carry so much of collective college basketball fandom’s animosity on his back? And while it might make sports stats geeks throw up in their mouths, Karpf ties it back to culture’s need to impose narrative on sports, to cast athletes as heroes and villains. It’s the populist viewpoint, and though Twitter autocrats like Jay Bilas view sports populism as “drivel”, well, his former pupil (Bilas was an assistant coach at Duke during that era) is proof positive that sports populism holds serious cultural cache. It’s why Karpf interviews wrestling heel Ric Flair and employs no less authority than Dr. Evil’s #2 as his narrator. And when interviewees speak of their Laettner hatred, they often resort to ancient storytelling archetypes, and the doc boils this eternal aversion down to “5 Points” – privilege, bullying, whiteness, looks, and plain greatness.

Some points Karpf backs up, like the bullying that was apparently born, in another storytelling archetype come true, from his big brother. Other points he is intent to refute, like the privilege, which went hand-in-hand more with Laettner’s scholarship to a prestigious university than his actual background. Michigan’s Jalen Rose smites Duke for recruiting players of affluence, yet Duke recruited Chris Webber, Rose's teammate, and Laettner's family life trends lower to middle class much more than hoity-toity. Yet the doc whiffs on more incendiary subject matter, like race. Rose and other black basketball players interviewed, such as UNLV’s Anderson Hunt, admit to pre-conceived suspicions about Laettner’s actual abilities before competing against him. It alludes to the origin of these doubts stemming from his “whiteness” but Karpf doesn’t have the cojones to press the matter. Nor does he follow up Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson’s theorizing that Laettner's style of aggressive, trash-talking play was “appropriating black styles of basketball projection but onto white bodies.” The film just lets this intriguing analysis lie there, feeling frustratingly incomplete, as if Karpf doesn’t want to wrestle with anything more significant than how Laettner kind of resembles Billy Zabka in “The Karate Kid.”

The real Christian Laettner, frankly, remains an enigma, and perhaps that’s the point. The doc’s overriding argument is less about the person than the person becoming the face of an institution viewed in general terms as “the establishment”. This effete school was already on its way to becoming the sport’s evil empire and Laettner turned out to be its timeless face. People still hate Christian Laettner because they still hate Duke, and vice-versa. Nevertheless, by portraying him as a symbol, the film shortchanges his psychological makeup. He claims only to care about what his friends and family think of him and comes across okay with his place as pop culture antihero, but it’s impossible not to be left with the sense of some motivational force left unearthed.

Early in the film we see home video of a game during Laettner’s prep school days when a fight between his team and another erupts. As it does, the camera catches Laettner evading harm’s way just as the event escalates to an out-and-out brawl, and you can’t help but wonder the question no one asks – did he incite it? Who knows? Like that fight, he spends the film in the open even as he’s subtly sliding right out of view.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

If Star Wars Characters Could Smoke...

It was announced last week by Disney CEO Bob Iger that going forward they would ban all smoking in films made under their umbrella with a rating of PG-13 or lower, which would include Lucasfilm. And because it includes Lucasfilm, it would include the “Star Wars” films. I never really thought of the “Star Wars” universe as a smoking one, but quick research did remind me that Jabba the Hutt liked the inter-galactic hookah. Funny that seeing Jabba smoke at such a tender age didn’t turn me into a smoker but then maybe it’s because he was a villainous and fairly disgusting crime lord and that scared me away.

But that’s not the point here. The point here is that really, for the most part, nobody was smoking in “Star Wars” even before ol’ Iger said they couldn’t. Yet ol’ Iger saying they couldn’t naturally made me wonder if they could who would? LISTICLE!!!!!!! (A brief note: 1. There will be no Han Solo because Han Solo was a whiskey drinker and we all know it.)

“Star Wars” Characters That Probably Smoked


Lando Calrissean. This is so obvious that I’m retroactively angry at Irvin Kershner for not forcing its conclusion. You’re telling me Lando didn’t kick back after a long day of administrating Cloud City at his mahogany desk with velvet drapes drawn to look out at his mining colony and light up a fat stogie? OH MY GOD, OF COURSE HE DID!


Uncle Owen. He didn’t smoke around Beru, of course, because she’d never stand for it. But when he was out there on the south ridge and struggling to make those persnickety condensers, like, you know, condense there’s not a doubt in my mind he snuck in a couple Tatooine-esque Kools. I know you, Owen. I know you, man.


Porkins. As most diehard “Star Wars” fans know there is a deleted pre-Battle of Yavin scene in which Porkins, sitting in his cockpit and waiting for his X-Wing to get gassed up, is seen smoking a Marlboro and drinking a cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee.


Gamorreans. I like to imagine these dudes sucking those cigs down on their fifteen minute break outside Jabba’s palace.


Princess Leia. Well, she doesn't smoke now, no. But back on Alderaan when she was just a rebellious teenage girl with dyed sky blue hair and Doc Martens and ripped fishnets? Hell yeah, she did. You know Kate Middleton used to smoke, right?


General Tagge. He’s stuck managing the Imperial Starfleet in the era of the Death Star, which is threatening to make his job obsolete, and all the while he’s got this menacing, mouth-breathing Sith Lord looking over his shoulder. Yeah, Tagge’s a two-packs-a-day kinda dude.


Boba Fett. Well, there's just no way Boba Fett didn't smoke. Am I right, fanboys? He was the baddest dude in the universe, right? By definition he was OBLIGATED to smoke. I'm sure he tilted that mask up after doing some badass thing and lit up the Mandalorian version of a Chesterfield. And I'm sure that when he did, it looked an awful lot like this.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Ballad of Movie Whiskey

In the recent Best Picture winning “Birdman” there is a moment when at-odds actors Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) and Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) exit the St. James Theater under the auspices of taking a short stroll to get some coffee and hash out their differences. Instead, Mike veers into the bar right next door, explaining “They have coffee here.” Well they do, sure, but you think that's what two bellyaching actors are going to drink while they holler melodramatic bromides at one another? Ha! Without even putting in their order the bartender pours out a pair of shots, as if squabbling actors bellying up to the bar is a regular occurrence, and Riggan and Mike take them up without disagreement. They are, of course, shots of whiskey – Jameson Whiskey, that is, which is a blended Irish whiskey. That would seem to go hand-in-hand with St. Patrick’s Day, the Irish-themed holiday celebrating the patron saint of liquor distribution, as historian Lewis Black has noted. Of course, Jameson’s founder, John Jameson, was Scottish. And these United States have, over the years, become the largest market for Mr. Jameson’s finely-calibrated spirit. While I feel the need to apologize, once again, to Irish people everywhere for so much of the world’s need to co-opt their heritage once a year as an excuse to revel, whiskey is universal.


“The Angel’s Share”, Ken Loach’s heartfelt socio-fable of 2013, hit on this idea, imagining Scotland’s whiskey as collective of its nation’s people, something to which they all were entitled, whatever the price, whatever the quality. But it went one step further in the film’s title, a nod to the wondrous phrase employed to describe the alcohol that evaporates during whiskey’s aging process, suggesting the glorious brown liquor also has communion with the gods. And since the stars of motion pictures are often referred to as our modern day spin on gods, it’s only right that movies commune with whiskey too.

It is a natural tendency of the film de cinema to skew romantic, and so cinematic whiskey is often romanticized, be it Terry and Eadie gently making doe eyes over their boilermakers in “On the Waterfront” or the characters of “Waking Ned Devine” toasting to their deceased friend. It is served with chuckles in “Lost in Translation” when fading movie star Bob Harris (Bill Murray) films a commercial for Suntory Whiskey, making like Frank and Deano as he tries to epitomize cool.


Then again, that scene has a strong undercurrent of sadness. “Suntory time!” recites the commercial director like there's nothing anyone in the whole world would ever want more at any point in their lives more than Suntory. But it only seems to be making Bob miserable. Or maybe that's just because his glass has iced tea instead of whiskey. Yet, when he's drinking at the bar later, gettin' his misanthrope on, he's drinking Suntory. Suntory time looks like time spent in a misanthrope's own company. He’s a sad man in the midst of the traditional mid-life crisis, stuck in a place he doesn’t want to be, and so the whiskey becomes symbolic of his downturn, emotional and professional, shelling for a product he doesn’t even particularly like.

Quite often that’s the way cinematic whiskey is presented, as a misplaced respite. Big Whiskey, the frontier town at the center of Clint Eastwood’s unforgettable “Unforgiven”, embodies this notion, a place where people fled in the hope of something better only to find themselves under the rainy, moody skies and the iron fist of a lawless Sheriff. The residents of Big Whiskey repair to the saloon to drown their sorrows and worries in actual whiskey. What else is there to do?


There's a sequence in another western, Kevin Costner's “Open Range”, where he and free-grazing Robert Duvall come to the town where the disagreeable men who rule it with iron fists don’t want them. Never mind that, Costner and Duvall want some whiskey. The bartender won't serve them. So Costner takes up his shotgun and blows a hole in the wall. Then they get served. The moment that follows is subtle high comedy – a kindly local and his sons drinking with our principal duo right in front of the shot-up reflective glass. Costner presses the kindly local on why they won't do anything about the disagreeable men running the town with iron fists. “You're men, ain't you?” Westerns give off a macho aura, of course, and “Whiskey,” as Sinatra told us in "Some Came Running", “is a man's drink.”

T’is. In “The Getaway” when Ali McGraw asks Steve McQueen, perhaps film’s singular epitomizing of masculinity, what he wants to eat after he’s just been released from a stint in the slammer he replies “Whiskey, whiskey, whiskey, whiskey.” Sgt. Barnes Come At Me, I’m A Man, You’re Little Boys speech in “Platoon” is accompanied by his bottle of Jack Daniels, from which he takes swigs, macho drips of it falling from his chin. The tough lug in “Mad Dog and Glory” played by Mike Starr mixes Chivas into his beloved glasses of milk just to ensure there is no confusion about his credentials.


Not that whiskey is exclusively the domain of men. Sure, everyone knows Marion Ravenwood comes correct, but Nicole Kidman officially becomes one of the boys not so much when she helps a lead a cattle drive through the Never-Never in “Australia” as when she enters the wharf saloon post-cattle drive with Hugh Jackman and is blessed by the grizzled bartender with a shot of whiskey. And remember in “Beautiful Girls” when Uma Thurman wants to do a shot and all the dude dunces standing around drinking crappy beer stumble all over themselves trying to suggest what kind. “Woo-woo's? Melon balls? Num nums?” Uma, taken aback, disgusted and confused, replies: “Whiskey.” Straight up. She says it like she’s drank a lot of whiskey in her time and they agree with her proposal like guys who say they’ve drank a lot of whiskey in their time.

Here’s the point in the story, however, where we must admit that, as with so many vices, the seductiveness of silver screen whiskey can go too far. “It's all wonderfully romantic,” wrote Roger Ebert about the hard drinkers in “A Love Song For Bobby Long”, “especially in the movies, where a little groaning in the morning replaces nausea, headaches, killer hangovers and panic attacks. A realistic portrait of suicidal drinking would contain more terror and confusion. ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ that, and this is a different movie.” “Leaving Las Vegas” did do it. Heaven help me, did it. It painted a soul-crushing portrait of an alcoholic’s last days, and even as it made you care unreservedly about its misfit characters, it never disguised the true issue, never glamorized or softened the hole that an alcoholic is in. Billy Wilder, meanwhile, filmed all those whiskey bottles and shot glasses in his black & white “The Lost Weekend” in such a way as to strip them of any and all tragic beauty; no, those repositories of liquor are just tragic.


It is unfortunate that film often simplifies the sobering-up process, whether it's “28 Days” adding mounds of Hollywood varnish or “Crazy Heart” more or less reducing it to a montage or “Smashed” skipping it altogether. But then maybe that's because this is a subject where the conflicting notions of movies being “escapism” and “important” run head long into one another.  They want to address the most meaningful of subject matter but don't always want to spend their time in the darkest of dark places. Still, cinema knows the damage incurred from falling off the wagon. For my money Ben Affleck has never been a better director then the moment late in “Gone Baby Gone” when Titus Welliver’s character orders three shots of Cutty Sark and proceeds to let twenty-three years of sobriety go by the wayside. It is not frivolous; it counts. Affleck lingers on the moment, letting the toll weigh oh so heavily.

So maybe, as is so often said in terms of drinking, moderation is the key. “The Untouchables” understood this notion, convening to bust Prohibition-era violators because funneling whiskey across the Canadian border was illegal no matter how good it did (or didn’t) taste. Yet there was agent Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), post-gunfight, a whizzing bullet having sprung a leak in a whiskey barrel, stealing a sip directly from the stream of the illegal good stuff. You can’t fault a man if he indulges his fancy here and there and within reason.

Of course, within reason isn’t how the movies do. “Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy, baby.” That’s how Greta Garbo introduced her voice to the cinema-going world eighty-five years ago, by utilizing “whiskey” as the third word most of the free world ever hear her say and then issuing the order not to be stingy. At the movies you can have as much of anything as you want, baby, and nowhere near enough, which is basically the same, and more or less everyone’s relationship with whiskey. In the words of James McMurtry: “I don't want another drink / I only want that last one again.”

And that brings me to Rick Blaine sitting in his own gin joint in the night’s wee hours with a glass and a bottle of whiskey simultaneously drowning his sorrows and keeping hope alive that his long-gone beloved, Ilsa Lund, might just return. It’s the quintessential cinematic whiskey scene, of course, and it is because it captures cinema's remarkable duality, that place where allure and melancholy collide with immense finesse. It goes down smooth. It goes down harsh.