Monday, September 01, 2014

Land Ho!

Near the end of “Land Ho!” its seminal moment arises. Two men in their sixties, Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) and Colin (Paul Eenhoorn), one-time brothers-in-law, less friends by choice than circumstance, have come to Iceland for a rejuvenating road trip. Camped out in the pristine Nordic countryside, Mitch confesses his reasons for conscripting Colin into this voyage were not entirely forthright and so he proceeds to offer an explanation. And the explanation is everything precisely because it isn’t much at all. The details will not be revealed but suffice it to say they are not based in disease – “I have cancer” – or some such. He didn’t even technically lie, he just conveniently eliminated information because, well, as a man of booming pride he felt a little embarrassed. And in that embarrassment, he betrays a remarkable honesty. And Colin responds just as a real friend would, reassurance by way of soft humor. Then, the film, like life, simply continues as is.

In a thus-far four film career, Aaron Katz, who edited and co-wrote and directed here with Martha Stephens, has proven himself an unrivaled purveyor of these moments, ones in which he takes a traditional movie scenario (The Confessional in this case) and rather than spoof it or turn it inside-out, strips it of the showy non-essentials, leaving behind only the imperatively authentic.

Consider a moment in their trek aboard a rented Humvee (matching Mitch’s personality perfectly) wherein they confront rushing water across the narrow road. Not knowing if they should dare and drive through since they do not know the precise depth, Colin decides he will wade out to gauge it. Seconds later, another car zooms past to reveal it easily passable, instantaneously sucking dry the scene’s inherent suspense, which is essentially what the film itself is doing. No specific goal is aimed for, no obvious epiphany waits. Instead “Land Ho!” is about finding peace in the moment and peace in the place.

Mitch is a gregarious Kentuckian, a part-time pothead and ogler of women half his age who can B.S. with the best of ‘em. This is a dangerous character to both create and play, one that is so outsized and often boorish it teeters on the edge of outright obnoxiousness, like Jonah Hill in “Superbad” with a pension, and yet every boast and vulgarity is undercut with a surprising sweetness. A retired doctor, a brief scene in which he brings out his stethoscope is full of low-key compassion, and acquires further meaning as the film progresses.

Colin, of course, is his opposite, an introspective Australian who is both accustomed to and nevertheless still chagrined (humorously and exasperatedly) by his friend’s behavior. You might say they are a new school Oscar Madison and Felix Unger, but that would suggest “Land Ho!” belabors the rote idea that “opposites attract” when it is more interested in exploring how common ground can be forged in spite of opposing mindsets.

The landscape becomes integral, not incidental, to their journey, the mountainous panoramas and erupting geysers encountered upon leaving Reykjavik behind subtly working to reduce the dual protagonists in their image. Nowhere is this more apparent than an ill-advised middle-of-the-night hike that finds them swallowed up by nature's vastness with nothing but a pair of pitiful glow sticks for guidance. It predictably leads to squabbling - The Break-Up, you might say - but almost instantly the characters move past it. Even as the environ diminishes them, it builds them back up, immersing them in its restorative powers, such as a sequence in a hot spring in which Colin essentially has a lo-fi Meet Cute. It is not, however, a trigger for transformation but a simple embrace of the present. “Land Ho!” is not about getting old and reflecting but about being old and recognizing, an idea the film brilliantly illustrates by ending when it does.

Early in the film, Mitch’s once-removed cousin Ellen (Karrie Crouse) and her friend, Janet (Elizabeth McKee), both college-aged, passing through on their own excursion, join the older men for a fancy dinner. Janet gives a lifelike oration on her field of study, Jewish Mysticism, explaining that below the surface of what we perceive as reality is a divine spirit. Not long after the girls have gone on their way, Mitch and Colin find themselves bundled up on a beach, shuffling to a song on the soundtrack bestowing “Land Ho!” its title. I don't really know if a divine spirit bubbles beneath the surface of this tiring and frustrating reality of ours, but to watch this moment and to watch this film undoubtedly makes me believe that sentiment might just be true.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

5 College Football Movies That Need To Be Made

And so another college football season has come to pass. As you may know that Cinema Romantico’s #1 favorite sport is college football, if only because occasionally Cinema Romantico enjoys force-feeding college football references which quite likely leave those who have no interest in college football or those who live in countries without college football (that is, every country that is not America) scratching their heads or rolling their eyes or both. So, I apologize – profusely – this is a list that required concocting, a list detailing five films about college football that should be made.

In the modern era, movies are light on decent college football opuses. (“College Coach” of 1933 and the Golden Age is my personal favorite.) Oh, some will point you toward “Rudy” and I will then point you toward Charles Pierce unforgettably calling it “a passel of unreconstructed mythopoeic bullpucky even by the standards of the university in question, which are considerable.” And when I Googled “College Football Movies”, like any strong-minded cinematic scholar of a certain genre might, I immediately came upon a Top 10 list at Bleacher Report (not linking cuz, like, really) which in keeping with its reputation as a bastion of well-researched, seriously-considered, liltingly-written prose kicked off its list with the following: “The Waterboy is definitely one of Adam Sandler's worst movies, but this movie still has its moments. And it is about college football.” Oh. Well. Sure. I mean, as long as it has its moments. (This list was composed by a “senior analyst.” God help us all.)

This, people, is what I’m talking about. I couldn’t even read the rest of the list. If it needs to include “The Waterboy”, even if it’s all the way down there at #10, we as a movie-producing, college football-obsessing nation have precipitously failed. And to me, this is unacceptable, and which is why I am here today in my official capacity as irrational college football devotee and movie loving whack job to propose five college football-centric films that should be made immediately.

5 College Football Movies That Need To Be Made

Disciples of St. Darrell. In 1963, Dan Jenkins of Sports Illustrated, whose phenomenal writing on the greatest sport continues to endure, traveled with a quartet of high-livin’ Texans as they attended four football games – three college, including the vaunted Red River Rivalry (Texas vs. Oklahoma), and one professional – over the course of 72 hours, eating, drinking, bulls****ing, and being oh so Texas-y. Describing it would take as long as it takes to actually read the article. So just read the article, and then be prepared to ask aloud, “Why isn’t that a movie?”

Plainfield Teacher’s College. Amongst the greatest sports hoaxes, I first came across this in one of those Incredibly True Sports Stories, or some such, books in my grade school library, though it was also recounted on an episode of Slate’s Hang Up and Listen sports podcast. In 1941, a Wall Street Stockbroker with the laudatory name of Morris Newburger invented a mythical football team known as Plainfield Teacher’s College. These were throwback days when newspapers printed scores of games called into them, so Newburger simply phoned in non-existent scores of non-existent games under an alias and presto! A make-believe juggernaut was conjured. I’m picturing a Charlie Kaufman-ish vibe, a film swinging riotously between reality and fantasy, the fictitious accounts mutating into something tangible, real life people becoming consumed by the fanciful ones, a crazified account of how the game is rooted in sentimentalized fantasy as much as reality. (One important note: Newburger also manufactured a star player named John Chung who – oh boy – gained power by eating rice on the sideline between quarters. Ah, America. We might have to eliminate that tidbit for the filmed version.)

1942 Rose Bowl. One of the go-to trivia questions for any CFB nut is this: what was the one Rose Bowl not contested in Pasadena, California? Answer: 1942, which was moved from the west coast in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor all the way across the country to Durham, North Carolina and Duke University where it was played in the rain. Last year Sports Illustrated had a fabulous recounting of the entire ordeal, the cross-country journey Oregon State would make and their Japanese-American teammate forced to stay behind, and opposing players that would later meet on the battlefield. There is a whole movie, I think, in chronicling this entire story, one that both gave a concerned nation something to focus on and simultaneously proved how much sports can mean and how little sports can mean in the grand scheme.

The Toilet Bowl. In 1983 Oregon and Oregon State played the last collegiate football game to conclude in a 0-0 tie (overtime has been added to prevent such a result, but it took 14 years) in the ancient sport’s most singular debacle, a game so infamously god-awful that colloquially it has come to be known as the Toilet Bowl. The glory of its misery is truly mind-boggling. The teams combined for eleven fumbles, five interceptions and four missed field goals and was contested in, as sportswriter Austin Murphy wondrously phrased it, “Old Testament rains.” This, along with another idea I have long pondered, is my dreamiest of dream movies, one that in its ballad of comical ineptness would still impress upon us the game’s absurd romanticism and how even in the worst of times and the foulest of conditions, the glory of sport and the human desire to succeed can shine through gray, gloomy clouds above soggy 1980’s Oregon astroturf.

The Vol Navy. The one original pitch on this list. The Vol Navy is a fleet of high-falutin’ Tennessee Volunteers fans in expensive yachts who tailgate on the Tennessee River, flowing alongside the banks where mammoth Neyland Stadium rests. And while offering this idea might give someone a bad idea, well, what about a comical thriller in which a crazed Alabama fan goes rogue on the Third Saturday In October, masquerades as a Tennessee fan, acquires a luxurious boat, infiltrates the Vol Navy, and attempts to……well, you see where this is going. Also, if you know SEC football, you know this idea isn’t as absurd as it sounds. Even if it was all made up it might be more fact based than “The Express.”

Friday, August 29, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: Romancing the Stone (1984)

The utterly incomparable Wesley Morris recently took stock of the twenty year old phenomenon of “Forrest Gump” for Grantland and wrote something that intrigued me amidst many, many things that intrigued me. He said “with Zemeckis it’s the gimmickry of his filmmaking that can thrill you.” That’s Robert Zemeckis, of course, director of “Forrest Gump” and a trove of other box office smashes, including 1984’s “Romancing the Stone”, which pulled nearly $77 million, placing it at #8 in the yearly box office rankings. And a film that I remembered as being playful and vibrant still very much is, but it also very much betrays its gimmickry. This, I must stress, is not a bad thing.

It is centered around Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner), an author of the romance lit variety who lives alone in the heart of New York City with her cat and her miniature airplane bottles of booze and the posters of her own books on the wall flaunting the man she created - Jesse - and whom she hopes will one day rescue her and love her forever and ever and ever. It is not, shall we say, a flattering portrayal, and reminds me of something else Morris said in that “Forrest Gump” piece. He said: “Zemeckis has no idea what to do with women.” You watch these opening sequences with their gloriously nostalgic mid-80’s soft FM saxophone as Joan finishes her latest book amidst tears and then realizes she never saw the Post-It note she left as a reminder buy Kleenex and you think, Yeah, he has no idea what to do with women. And maybe he doesn't, but maybe the film's screenwriter does.

“Romancing the Stone” was written by Diane Thomas, a supernova who was working as a waitress in Malibu when she penned “Romancing the Stone”, sold it for some cold hard cash and watched its box office go loco. No less an authority than Steven Spielberg brought her into the fold to write “Always” and begin work on a “Indiana Jones” sequel. Then, she died in a fiery car crash in 1985. F***ing life, man. It’s difficult to track down definitive info on Ms. Thomas’s motives when considering her terribly unfortunate death happened pre-Intwerwebs, but this comprehensive piece at Romance University labels the late Ms. Thomas “an avid romance reader.” Indeed, as Thomas appeared to know this territory well, as the film can kind of be viewed as a far less existential precursor to “Adaptation” – the Donald Kaufman half of “Adaptation”, that is.

After finishing her latest manuscript, Joan is summoned to the wilds of Colombia by her sister who has gotten herself into a wee spot of derring-do over a treasure map that supposedly leads to a majestical green stone probably worth more than The Heart of the Ocean. So despite being - in the phrase of Garrison Keillor - a great indoorsman, Joan lights out for South America and promptly finds herself on the wrong bus and at the mercy of the film's chief heavy, General Zolo (Manuel Ojeda), who's maybe just a tad too evil when viewed in context of the film's overriding comic chicanery.

Enter: Jack T. Colton (Michael Douglas). The hero. The Jesse in the romance novel of Joan Wilder's life, and that's just the thing. Zemeckis's gimmickry is what thrills you in his filmmaking and “Romancing the Stone” is distinctly about Joan becoming ensnared in the gimmickry she has been penning all her life. This suggests a self-aware movie, one in which Joan can sense every twist of the plot and call it out before it happens, or adjust the plot on the fly by guessing ahead and preemptively adjusting, sort of a more swashbuckling “Delirious.” Yet, the script of Ms. Thomas has far too much reverence for the bounty of books from which it is cribbed to be so boorish.

And if The Hero's Journey is not complete until the Hero has Returned With The Elixir - a lesson of some sort, a metaphorical potion from the the Special World into which She has Crossed - than Joan Wilder's Elixir is realizing that, yes, her stories are true. The gimmick gives way to dreamy veracity.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Cinema Romantico Fall/Winter Movie Power Rankings

At last. Fall approaches and just beyond Fall, sweet, glorious Winter. And with Fall and Winter we leave behind the preponderance of blockbusteria. I mean, mostly. I mean, you’ve got your Christopher Nolan Ginormously Hyped Mystery Meat movie and you’ve got your David Fincher Based On A Global Bestseller movie and you’ve got your Jennifer Lawrence Continues Her World Domination Tour movie and you’ve got your Inevitable Sequels to movies that didn’t really seem to warrant sequels and you’ve got your Middlebrow “Hey! Everybody’s In That!” thriller/drama thingamajig and you’ve got Brad Pitt In A Tank and you’ve got Johnny Depp playing dress up and you’ve got Sienna Miller Cameron Diaz playing Miss Hannigan and so on and so forth. But forget all that. Let's look at a few other offerings this forthcoming fall/winter. The offerings that the staff here at Cinema Romantico is most excited to see.

The Cinema Romantico Fall/Winter Movie Power Rankings

10. Red Army

Why I’m Excited To See It: It’s over-established that I am in irrefutable, uber-passionate, perhaps even annoying Olympics junkie, and this documentarian chronicling of the Soviet Union's uber-hockey power plays right to my Igor Ter-Ovanesyan loving heart. Also, it was directed by Gabe Polsky, who co-directed "The Motel Life", which you might recall me adoring.

9. The Better Angels

Why I’m Excited To See It: Cuz Brit-B-Brit plays Honest Abe's mom, yo. Woot-woot!

8. Laggies

Why I’m Excited To See It: Lynn Shelton, the director who helped coax the three best movie performances of 2012, takes flight with my beloved Keira Knightley.

7. St. Vincent

Why I’m Excited To See It: Because it's "Apt Pupil" meets "About a Boy" as re-imagined by Jim Jarmusch if he had a Luke Wilson accent and supported Sgt. Barnes in "Platoon" but still smoked pot.  Also, it stars Bill Murray.

6. Wild

Why I'm Excited To See It: Back when Reese Witherspoon, America’s Sweetheart, or so US Weekly would tell you, was arrested along with her husband and played the “Do you know who I am?” card and everyone had self-righteous fueled freak-outs, I wrote an open letter to her for the since extinct Anomalous Material in the hopes that she would use this moment to re-evaluate her career and motivation to take some risks. And here comes Reese in a mostly solo movie about a woman hiking the length of the Pacific Crest Trail all on her lonesome. Risk: taken. Here's to hoping it worked.

5. Foxcatcher

Why I’m Excited To See It: It’s over-established that I am in irrefutable, uber-passionate, perhaps even annoying Olympics junkie (wait, that sounds familiar), and in the run-up to the '96 summertime version in Atlanta I recall being consumed by the horrifying yet engrossing story of John du Pont murdering Dave Schultz, a freestyle wrestler under the millionaire's disturbingly eccentric wing. I can't say I ever considered that it might one day be a movie, but now that it's here...

4. Before I Go To Sleep

Why I'm Excited To See It: Little known fact - back in 2002 I pitched a thriller which I envisioned starring the impeccable Nicole Kidman as a woman who wakes up every morning remembering nothing of her past. Two years later, Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore turned up in “50 First Dates.” What can you do? I thought. Now, lo and behold, here's a thriller starring the impeccable Nicole Kidman as a woman who wakes up every morning remembering nothing of her past. I don't care if I'm not getting a cut off the profits! Let's do this thing!  

3. Rudderless

Why I’m Excited To See It: Billy Crudup, the best movie guitar player of all time, plays guitar in a movie again.

2. Zero Motivation

Why I'm Excited To See It: Because the trailer is an espresso shot of pure joy.

1. Birdman

Why I’m Excited To See It: Because the trailer is a goddamn religious experience.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Old Joy

“We’ll just have to find another rhythm.” This is what Mark (Daniel London) says to his longtime friend Kurt (Will Oldham) about life as he knows it and the baby he and his wife, Tanya (Tanya Smith), are expecting. But it also aptly describes the small but generally fabulous oeuvre of the film’s auteur, Kelly Reichardt, a woman who has found a different cinematic rhythm, one that can sometimes feel akin to the journey undertaken by Rachel Nuwer of the BBC in which she attempted to locate the last place on Earth without human noise. Reichardt is not afraid of silence and she often seems to be explicitly attempting to convey what silence can mean in a world infiltrated almost exclusively by noise. Her films often have political and social bents as well, yet “Old Joy”, from 2006, the barely 75 minute feature that seemingly started her recent run of creativity (“Wendy and Lucy”, “Meek’s Cutoff”, “Night Moves”), appears most intent on exploring what happens in our heads when everything goes quiet.

The film’s opening shots involve Mark meditating in the backyard of his Oregon home. This meditation quite unreservedly comes across futile, particularly when he fields a phone call from Kurt, whom he hasn’t seen in years, wondering if he might like to meet up for a hike to some supposedly mystical hot spring in the wilderness. He “runs it by” Tanya and she wonders about the point of running it by her since they both already know he’s going. It’s a conversation about how they don’t have conversations, and they both know it and neither seems to have any idea what to do about it, and this signals a communication breakdown, one which Reichardt seems quite content to hammer home in her laconic way.

As Mark drives to pick up Kurt, he listens to talk radio, pundits hollering about politics, but this feels less like rhetoric than aesthetic, the drone of background noise that follows everyone everywhere. Upon picking up his pal, in one of those anti-narrative decisions that many might resist, “Old Joy” follows them as they wind their way out of town, the camera insisting on the transition from the non-descript factories and hazy gray turnpikes and rote freeway signs to the evergreen forestry. This insistence lets us feel the fumes of the cityscape fall away. Still, the characters struggle to breathe in the replenishing oxygen. They get lost, not in that horror movie way but in that realistically meandering way. We see how time has subtly frayed their friendship – Kurt clinging to scraps of the past, Mark warily crawling toward the future. They came to clear their minds, yet the clouds won’t part.

The film’s finest shot is deceptively simple, placing the camera in back of the car and watching Mark field a phone call from his wife and exit the vehicle and walk up the road as we watch along with the Kurt through the windshield. This is it what it takes to be noise-free in present day America, for the other person to take his phone off into the woods. Yet when presented a moment of genuine silence, Kurt tokes up, as if the prevalence of our own thoughts is precisely what terrifies him about alone time.

Reichardt gradually builds “Old Joy” to a moment when both characters are left alone with their own thoughts, and what she does with it is brilliantly tricky. She plays on the audience’s own ideas of what happens absent human noise in a subverted Hitchcockian kind of way so that when a certain moment of behavior occurs between them, we, like Mark, think Kurt must be up to something nefariously bizarre. We can’t calm down. We can’t relax. We can’t shut off. And “Old Joy” makes clear how numbingly difficult it can be to get there. And when we do, we return to the sounds of talk radio and the noises of the street. Manohla Dargis of the esteemed New York Times saw hope in the final shots. I thought of when I return to the streets of the city from peaceful respites of seclusion and immediately, unintentionally and frustratingly drop right back into patterns of self-narration of exasperation, the urban sprawl re-consuming me. Joy, it's so hard to come by, so hard to sustain.

Monday, August 25, 2014


"Calvary" serves in abundance staggering shots of the sweeping shorelines, rocky vistas, high definition greenery, and churning seas that define its small town Irish setting, yet none of these images count as the film's most memorable. Rather the face of its lead actor, Brendan Gleeson, as weathered and windswept as the Irish coast, framed consistently in close-up, comes to define the film. Owning the screen in every conceivable way without overpowering it, he is Father James Lavelle, head priest at a remote parish, and at times Gleeson's bushy beard completely shrouds his clerical collar, a nifty visual trick suggesting the comings and goings of faith, and rendering him in those moments as nothing more than A Man In A Black Cossack - a Johnny Cash character by way of County Sligo. After all, he’s not your prototypical priest. He’s a reformed alcoholic and long-ago widower with a daughter (Kelly Reilly) who has just attempted to commit suicide not so much as a Cry For Help as a Who Knows What.

The film opens with Father James in a confessional where a man, never seen, enters the booth, claims he was abused and raped by a priest when he was a teen and vows revenge - not against the party responsible since he is long since dead, but against Father James, because if the priesthood is merely a symbol than any symbol'll do. The stranger, however, promises his target one week to get his house in order – then, judgment day.

While this looming showdown ostensibly means that Father James becomes a kind of investigator, dealing with the colorful local lunatics and ferreting out clues as to just who might have made this threat, it is less about that than illustrating him as the shepherd of his unruly and decidedly un-holy flock. As an actor, Gleeson has perfected the facial expression of appearing simultaneously bemused and aggravated, and here he wields it with abandon. This unnamed town at the core of "Calvary" becomes an effective representation of the world at large, one in which genuine faith is dwindling, where the local priest is a therapeutic caretaker rather than a servant of God.

Early in the film, a dying writer (M. Emmet Walsh) on whom Father James routinely checks up laments that his whole life is an “affectation.” Father James replies “That's one of those lines that sounds witty but doesn't actually make any sense.” It’s a comical retort, sure, but the film itself argues that Father James is less configured in Christ than in affectation. Consider that in spite of his station we never see the clerical main character sermonizing nor quoting scripture. The only time he gives out Hail Mary's and Our Father's is in jest. The closest equivalent is a brief early scene wherein he gives the sacrament to parishioners, yet their faces and follow-up behavior suggest they merely crave penance without actually having to repent.

As both writer and director, John Michael McDonagh does not make the Catholic church’s clerical abuses and cover-ups the explicit point but nor does he deflect their role. One scene finds Father James having a polite chat with a young girl only to watch, stupefied, as her father rushes in and squires her away, fearful that a moment left alone in a priest’s stead will only tender trouble. As such, the main character, taken in conjunction with the film’s title, evoking Jesus taking on the sins of all mankind on the cross planted to Calvary Hill, shoulders the sins of the Vatican. Not that the film presumes to provide atonement for an entire organization.

This is a personal journey undertaken by Father James, one pointed not toward a reckoning with the mystery man but a man getting right with God. That the journey's end point is not the plunge into darkness its nature suggests but a manifestation of belief is due in no small part to McDonagh's screenplay, though the performance of Gleeson is ultimately what conveys it with such heartrending authenticity. This is award worthy work, potency growing out of his restraint. He finds reason to believe. He gives us reason to do the same.