Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Force Majeure

Family photos have long struck this reviewer as disingenuous. They seem so contrived, so designed to get fathers and mothers and sons and daughters done up in clothes they would never wear and to sit or stand or uncomfortably, inauthentically kneel and to obey literal barked commands of "smile!" rather than simply allowing those smiles to form of their own volition. The family photo was the Facebook photo before Facebook. SEE HOW HAPPY WE ARE?! Not for nothing then does "Force Majeure", director Ruben Östlund austered Swedish drama chock full of uneasy laughs, open with images of its obligatory family of four posing for portrait to reassure themselves that, dammit, they really are happy.

That portrait takes place on a mountainside vista amidst the pristine French Alps at a luxury ski resort where Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) have brought their adolescent son and daughter because the whole purpose of a luxury ski resort is to forget your troubles and kick up powder. The artificiality of the entire excursion is slyly underlined by the resort's "controlled" avalanches, employed to keep the handsome trails properly groomed. Eventually, however, as the family sits down for a scenic meal at an outdoor restaurant, one of those "controlled" avalanches, mirroring the force majeure of the title, becomes a little un-controlled and the story kicks into gear.

As clouds of snow billow down where they sit, Tomas pulls a Costanza - that is, when George Costanza of "Seinfeld" realized the hamburgers at the little kid's birthday caught on fire and he un-heroically fled, leaving everyone, women and children and birthday clowns, behind. The avalanche of "Force Majeure" doesn't really get out of control, it just appears to, and yet it still allows a pulling back of the curtain on Tomas's real inner nature. He abandons his wife and kids, tucking tail and running, and then comes sauntering back like nothing happened.

"Relationships that start under intense circumstances," Annie Porter once observed, "they never last." The same could be said of relationships that suddenly face intense circumstances, such as your spouse running for his life rather than laying down his for the kids. This telling reaction rattles Ebba. At first, she bottles it up, until she has a couple glasses of wine at which point she can't help but mention it, telling their friends, also staying at the resort, whether they want to hear it or not. And each time she does, Tomas denies her version of events. He doesn't remember fleeing as she reached for and covered her kids. Ah, but he should know better than anyone this is the iPhone age, and in the iPhone age there can be no "Rashomon."

"Force Majeure" quickly, and thankfully, casts aside its he said/she said predicament to mine for richer territory within the male psyche and the dynamics of relationships. As Tomas, Bah Kuhnke comes equipped with a kind of vacancy in his eyes, as if he's been detached from this marital union since the cake got sliced, and when Ebba confronts him on his cowardice, he retreats to watch TV with his daughter, like a little kid who never really grew up no matter how money he (obviously) makes.

One of the eeriest passages of the year finds Tomas and his mountain-manish brother (Kristofer Hivju) reclining after a day on the slopes and an attractive lady bringing him a beer at the behest of her just-as-attractive friend. Tomas puffs out his chest. Except, as it happens, the just-as-attractive friend meant for that beer to go to someone else and awkardness ensues and then a showing of feathers in lieu of an actual fight when a couple fellas intervene, and to see the ego of a couple dudes get so publically shattered and how pitifully they react painfully exposes the male ego for the giant bag of wind it really is.

Not that the film forsakes Ebba. Not at all. As aloof and unconnected as her husband seems, her pain and confusion comes across far more immediate and appreciable. She has drinks with a friend (Clara Wettergren) who expressly talks of her open marriage in spite of their kids. Ebba can't square with this notion. Isn't marriage supposed to be monogamous? Isn't that in the vows? She keeps going back to it and her friend dismisses these ideas of one sexual partner for the rest of your life like she's just lost a game of drunken backgammon. This, we're made to wonder, is what we have to look forward to with everlasting love?

"Force Majeure's" arty, mysterial conclusion takes place aboard a bus as it ferrys a gaggle of tourists, including our main characters, down the winding, twisting mountains in a sequence that is awe-inspiring in its queasiness and simply-rendered terror. It's as stomach-churning as anything in "Gravity", the way Östlund plants those snow-capped peaks right in our faces in the window to make it seem as if we all might go tumbling down them together. And this slow-moving rollercoaster taken in conjunction with the subsequent scene seem, in their own way, to epitomize the very notion of marriage as one chock full of potential calamities that must be narrowly averted.

Happily ever after cedes the roadway to an uncertain forward march.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


Staring down the barrel of a three month, eleven-hundred mile hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) endeavors to simply strap on her elephantine backpack, sprawled out on the floor with its full weight pinning her down. It is, of course, a moment of palpable physicality in which director Jean-Marc Vallée fluently communicates the arduousness of his character's almost reckless desire to test her mettle. It is also, however, a 210D Nylon metaphor for Cheryl's whole existence, one woman's struggle to get out from under the weight of all the crap that is her life. If it's a blunt metaphor, it's a no less apt one, and blunt metaphors are permissible in films where the protagonist is made to rip off her own toenail. She is going into the wild, yes, but more than that she is going into the wild as a means to go mentally into her past.

Adapted by author Nick Hornby, "Wild" communicates its main character's adventure not as a linear journey stretching from the unbearable heat of the Mojave to the wintry peaks of the Sierra Nevada, but as one hopping back and forth in time in Cheryl's life. The flashbacks paint a portrait of a woman who has, more or less, lived two lives already by the age of 26, one as a Tracy Flick-ish wunderkind motivated by a mother (Laura Dern, a winning performance that believably conjures a loving free-spirit) who has fled an abusive husband to make a new life and one as a Vanessa Lutz-ish bad girl driven to the edge of self-destruction when her mother passes away from cancer. Ruining her marriage to a man who clearly still loves her but also knows it's in his best interest to get distance, her life devolved into the requisite bacchanal of drugs, booze and sex.

Admittedly these present/past episodes seem a bit too tidy in their construction to truly invoke the film's title. "There's no way to know what makes one thing happen and not another. What leads to what," Cheryl sermonizes in voiceover even though the film spends its entire two hours illustrating exactly what leads to what, what makes one thing happen and not another. If, say, she hitches a ride then the guy giving her a ride will turn on the car radio and if he turns on the car radio then it will immediately cue up a song that immediately cues up a flashback to some long-ago incident that allows for another blatant filling in of another one of our protagonist's blanks.

Yet simultaneously these repeated intrusions of what brought her to the trailhead fit seamlessly by evoking how anyone's most notable companion on a solo quest is him or herself and when left in the company of yourself for so long you can't help but pour over every celebration, failure or regret. It's funny, isn't it, how journeys into the ostensible unknown dredge up things we know too damn well.

If the film is noticeably light on hair-raising action-adventure exploits despite its material, it is hefty on the physical vulnerability Cheryl is forced to experience in a generally unaccompanied environment. Otherwise good-hearted male hikers she encounters along the way jocularly anoint her the "Queen of the PCT" because of the many helping hands she receives, from other backpackers, park rangers, etc. They say it good-heartedly but that doesn’t fail to mask the underlying obliviousness. They make a point to explain they receive no such generosity while failing to grasp that a lone woman in the wilderness means every encounter with the opposite sex comes cloaked in uneasiness and potential full-on fear. That nothing happens can perhaps be attributed to her gradually mounting emotional fortitude, or her to pure luck, but the omnipresent idea of menace nevertheless remains palpable.

Certainly this raises the notion of Cheryl's non-recreational walk as one of self-flagellation as much as spiritual rejuvenation. When she loses her hiking boots and ducts tapes sandals to her feet and presses forward there is a discernible attitude of I Deserve This. "Fuck you, bitch!" she screams at her departed footwear, even though she's really yelling it at herself. As an actress, Reese Witherspoon is generally viewed as one of the queens of the rom com (which makes the label "Queen of the PCT" all the more acerbic), a ferocious ball of perky energy. Here she unplugs, deftly playing someone who is exhausted, drained of all power, and even before she sets off on her odyssey. She simply seems tired – tired of walking this trail, tired of living this life, tired of standing in these shoes. This is decidedly at odds with the sort of character that usually inhabits these kinds of Jack London adventurer tales. There is a moment when a fellow hiker she briefly meets references training and the look Witherspoon lets play on her face reveals that "training" for her was not merely an afterthought but never thought about.

Cheryl Strayed is woefully ill-prepared, out of her element, resistant to myth-making. And no matter how many times she turns to the collected works of Emily Dickinson for inspiration, she is not in the throes of a quest to "find herself" but to shake free of who she is. She, to quote Bruce Springsteen who himself is momentarily referenced in the film, walks a thousand miles to slip her skin.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Inherent Vice

If "The Master", Paul Thomas Anderson's ginormous puzzle of God-knows-whatism, pertinently established a prevalent theme, it was that its auteur had become The Master of the engimatic cinematic behemoth. Mr. Anderson's run times are colossal, his themes plunge to unknowable depths, his films demand incessant re-watches (has there been a modern-day director whose work so often elicits the comment "I can't wait to watch it again"?) and even then it can be a Herculean struggle to make heads or tails of what's going on. "Inherent Vice", however, while copying the length of PTA's predecessors, is nowhere near as psychologically impenetrable. Oh, it's confusing, definitely, but that's simply on account of an intentional runaway plot. Grasping its innumerable parts is not as consequential as drinking in its refreshingly slack vibe.

The film's kaleidoscopic story is seen through the tinted glasses of Doc Sportello, played by that most physically present of actors, Joaquin Phoenix, with a Lennon-ish mane, a feelin'-groovy strut and a voice that suggests a mellow if firm belief in brotherly love, even if that belief is not always reciprocated. He is a 40's gumshoe re-imagined as a late 60's beatnik trying to keep on keepin' on at the dawn of the 70's, Philip Marlowe if Philip Marlowe preferred bare feet to Florsheims and liked his cannabis anywhere, night or day, rather than his brandy in a glass.

Doc is approached by his ex, the marvelously named Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katerine Waterston), like Cerie Xerox crossed with Michelle Phillips. Her current squeeze, a real estate magnate of some renown (Eric Roberts), a none-too-subtle harbinger of greed and excess, has disappeared and she winsomely asks if Doc might help. He agrees to snoop, but less as a sucker lured by a femme fatale than a guy who simply wants to remain right-on for the gal he still adores. That's a critical delination, marking the film as a noir colored in kodachrome as opposed to stern black & white.

"Inherent Vice" is based on a 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon which I have not read, but which seems saddled with a permanent disclaimer of "Unfilmable." And if that's true, it seems at least possible that someone like P.T. Anderson would take such a disclaimer as a personal challenge. His finished product is leisurely and long, even though it feels entirely present in its individual moments, of which there are so, so many. It's akin to a two-and-a-half hour shaggy dog story. If P.T. closes a door, he opens a window. If he closes a window, he opens a portal to some other dimension. At one point, when conducting an "interview", Doc jots down in his notebook "something Spanish." That's essentially the language of the tale being communicated: something Spanish.

It's an able-bodied proposition in keeping everything straight, the names and places, the comings and goings, the vanishings and re-appearances. Martin Short, I'm reasonably certain, wearing a plum suit that makes him look like a deposed emperor, was merely a hallucination from the halluconigen wafting off the screen. That character couldn't have been real. I don't even remember how he factored into the story, which theoretically rules this critic out of order but then watching this film unfold is like being one of the mafiosos in "True Romance" listening to Floyd try and give directions. Who the hell knows? We'll get there when we get there. Jena Malone's one-scene walk-off is sheer magnificence but I'm not sure where it fits either.

Well, maybe I am. She's an ex-heroin addict who's cleaned up in the name of her baby girl and though she summons Doc because she needs him to track down her husband who's also gone missing (and who's played by Owen Wilson with an air that suggests he showed up in the middle of filming and just said "Cast me"). She makes time for a mind-bending monologue with a sunflower coffee cup about her past, present and future, illustrating the delicate line between the counter-culture and the squares. It's blending, and when it's gone, it'll be gone, and it's why the real pre-eminent relationship of the film isn't so much Doc & Shasta as Doc & Detective Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen.

He's played by Josh Brolin with a severe buzzcut and a deadpan gloom denoting a belief that the world is fucked and that vile hippie scum did the fucking. He can't stand Doc and seems eternally out to get him, and yet needs him as an informant much like Doc relies on him for information. They're in this together, like it or not. In the most hysterical sequence in a film this year Doc hallucinates a late-night commercial starring "Bigfoot" in the role of precisely the sort of vile bohemian he despises. Brolin's impeccable monotone makes every flower-power aphorism ring with a hilarity Ron Burgundy could never hope to match. It's also emblematic of the whole film, not just its laconic wit but the way these dueling aspects of America - Dude and Groovy, Man - have run headlong into one another.

We know which one eventually wins, yet whereas anger has so often spilled from the pen of Paul Thomas Anderson, this one is coated in a warmth foreign to the rest of its auteur's oeuvre. Not even in "Punch Drunk Love", a film which felt studious in its glow whereas the glow of "Inherent Vice" feels innate. The characters may mock one another but the film doesn't mock the characters. It's a judge-free zone, observational, and uproarious, and even romantic. It may capture the dying embers of a more free-thinking era, but it doesn't seek to bitterly deconstruct it so much as plaintively wave goodbye.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: It's A Wonderful Life (1946)

The first time I watched the holiday staple "It's A Wonderful Life" in totality, its infamous ending, nowadays just a Youtube search away, hit me like the last verse of Springsteen's "Racing in the Street" (in the gut, and then in the gut again). I'd heard the line "Every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings", like, 500 times but until you hear an oft-repated cinematic chestnut in its full context you often aren't actually hearing it. I'd never heard it until then, and when I did, my heart leapt as my eyes watered. God, it was glorious. It was also 1999. I was young and foolish and idealistic. Now I'm old and an idiot and my idealism is long gone and I, like so many others, wonder if this conclusion is merely a fruit basket of bunkum. Every year when NBC fires up its once-a-night showing and Jimmy Stewart comes to and the snow starts to fall I can't help but wonder if maybe, just maybe, he'll reach that You Are Now In Bedford Falls sign and about-face and run all the way to - ah hell, I dunno, Apple River? I mean, otherwise isn't he just Truman Burbank without the soundstage?

I thought of all this in June when I was in Denison, Iowa and standing outside the W.A. McHenry House where Donna Reed's Academy Award is on display. She earned that Oscar for her greatest role, Alma Burke in "From Here To Eternity", but, rest assured, the street signs in that little town don't bear the words "From Here To Eternity." They bear the words "It's A Wonderful Life." There's a reason they bus people to the Donna Reed Theatre there every December to see Frank Capra's classic and not the other one even though it too has a relation to the month of December. And that's because the 1946 Christmastime favorite ultimately opts for a gauzy, sentimental belief in barbecues & ball games (coinage: Neil McCauley) America whereas "From Here To Eternity" finds her (and Deborah Kerr) staring off into the great unknown.

That ending and its jolly glow, as many a revisionist piece has lobbyed since its release, clouds the film's dark, raging heart. After all, George Bailey may have a wife and kids and a house but, shit, he wanted to see the world. He wanted to get out of Bedford Falls and have adventures. He wanted to live like a hero, like his brother, but he never did. Christopher Nolan may have employed the Dylan Thomas poem for his recent "Interstellar", but I feel as if "It's A Wonderful Life" and its protagonist's meltdown is a better example of its verbiage: "And you, my father, there on the sad height / Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray / Do not go gentle into that good night." Rest assured, George isn't about to go gently. He's about to hurl himself off that bridge.

Of course, that's simply surface level. If you want to get more meta you could take the reading of Mark Harris's from his recent book "Five Came Back" in which he ties the plight of George Bailey directly to the film's auteur, and how Frank Capra felt marginalized and slighted in Hollywood after returning from WWII. Thus, he made parable for himself about himself, granting himself victory in the end. Ye gods. Even that reading, however, ties back to the furious anger rollicking on the edge of so many frames of this Yuletide classic. Capra was as pissed as George Bailey at the place he called home, lashing out in his own sentimentalized way, and so angered with its at-the-time lukewarm reception he, more or less, gave up on making movies. He'd had it.

The end, when George comes back around after a case of celestial intervention to realize what he truly has is set to that old NYE staple "Auld Lang Syne." To this day, I can't get over how melancholy that song makes me feel, and that melancholia goes hand-in-hand not only with December 31st but the entire holiday season. I suppose this is tied to going home, seeing old friends and memories of Christmas past springing up like so many twinkling lights strung on rooftops. You remember not just where you're from but who you were, where you wanted to go, what you wanted to do, who you wanted to be, and you hear the echoes of that old dude from "It's A Wonderful Life" admonishing George in a refrain so ancient but so true....."Youth is wasted on the wrong people."

It's funny, in that long-ago hoopla regarding film colorization, "It's A Wonderful Life" was one of the movies that found itself under threat of alteration. I don't mean to suggest Capra's film should have been colorized, not at all, because that's sacrilege, but to merely wonder about a properly black & white "It's A Wonderful Life" until that final scene. Think of another stone-cold classic, "The Wizard of Oz", and the way it used monochrome and Technicolor, the former to represent dreary old Kansas and the latter to represent a magical faraway land. Yes, yes, sure, sure, there's no place like home and all that, but as acclaimed author Terry McMillan once noted: "the land of Oz wasn't such a bad place to be stuck in. It beat the farm in Kansas."

What if the first two hours and ten minutes of Capra's classic chronicled all its regret, anguish and self-pity in haunting black & white and then, when fate is reversed and George's will to live is returned, it suddenly gives way to color? Would it not work in some bastardized way to also bastardize the very myth it embodies? These are things, the movie is telling us, that create "a wonderful life" - spouse, children, hearth, home, card table flush with cash. Ah, but if these things don't create "a wonderful life", what then? So you look around, you say a toast, you sing "Auld Lang Syne", you choose to believe with all your might, and hope and pray the fantasy doesn't crumble.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

It Takes One To Know One

There's that indelible moment in "High Fidelity" when John Cusack's Rob Gordon has a come-to-Jesus talk with Bruce Springsteen in his mind. It's indelible because it so implicitly captures the relationship so many Springsteen-fanatics have with our idol, and how we turn to his music (and, by extension, him) for advice, companionship, reassurance, affirmation of joy, condolences in sorrow, etc. Of course, the film actually got to cast the real Bruce Springsteen, which was a coup and just totally awesome and as authentic as it was tongue-in-cheek, but it was more a metaphorical embodiment of that relationship than realistic. Which brings me to "Wild."

That's the one where Reese Witherspoon is playing Cheryl Strayed and she's on, like, a 47 billion mile hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, through the desert and into the Sierra Nevadas and so on and so forth. She's got a backpack that's, like, as big as Andre the Giant strapped on and her boots are too small and her toenails keep falling off. Shit's real, man. And then she comes to this rushing river and the only way across is a rudimentary log bridge and, you know, she's got the pack and the bad boots and success here is not a given. She focuses. She steadies herself. Yet, she still needs a little something extra, a little reassurance, a little guiding light. She says, out loud and to herself since no one is with her, "Come on, Bruce. Stay with me."

I was flabbergasted, yet not quite sure I'd heard her right. Did she say, "'Come on, Bruce?'" I thought to myself. "'Stay with me?' As in, Bruce Springsteen, stay with me? Like I do in certain situations? Did that really just happen?" Then, she makes it across the water triumphantly (spoiler alert!) and as she does, the soundtrack picks up with Bruce's (miraculous) "Tougher Than the Rest" already in progress, as if it's been playing in her head along, because it was, and now the film is allowing us all the way into her private mental moment, her own council with The Boss.

That. That's my relationship to Bruce Springsteen. Fourteen years ago last month I was in the midst of moving from Des Moines to Phoenix. It was early November and I set out a sunny morning from my hotel in Oklahoma City bound for Albequerque. The sun was out. It was cold but it was nice. Then in the Texas panhandle, it struck. That is, a snowstorm. A walloping snowstorm. This was some serious shit. It was blinding. I could barely see ten feet in front of my car. Traffic was crawling. Cars were all over the side of the road and in the ditch. Semis were upturned on the freeway. Amarillo was miles and miles away which was where I needed to get to to get off this road. It seemed at least semi-possible that I might die in a ditch. In Texas. Heaven help me, to die in Texas. That's not how I envisioned it. So I put on a Bruce Springsteen CD. I cranked it. "Come on, Bruce," I said out loud and to myself since no one was with me as I literally patted my dashboard above the stereo. "Stay with me."

From one fanatic to another, Cheryl Strayed, I salute you.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Totally Official Cinema Romantico Love Actually Power Rankings

We here at Cinema Romantico have been so engrossed in viewing and contemplating end-of-the-year awards contenders, as well as "awards contenders", that there comes a point when we simply need to sit the hell down, take a breath and drink some seasonally festive rum punch in film form. By which, of course, we mean "Love Actually." You know "Love Actually." That oddly controversial English confection that half of critic's America thinks is as swell and aw-shucks and golly-gee as the Coca-Cola™ Polar Bears and that the other half of critic's America thinks is an unholy lie because DON'T YOU KNOW THAT POLAR BEARS ARE FREAKING CARNIVORES AND REALLY, REALLY MEAN AND THOSE STUPID COMMERCIALS ARE ALL JUST LIES???!!!

We here at Cinema Romantico tend to side with the first faction - which we kinda covered last year - because we here at Cinema Romantico tend to believe Sara Thomas is a cinematic saint. So in that spirit....

The Totally Official Cinema Romantico Love Actually Power Rankings

135. Natalie's parents calling her "plumpy". I mean, really. I mean, seriously. Her own dad calls her "plumpy." And look at him there. He's not actually not-portly, if you know what I mean. Screw that guy. Screw all of them. Adopt a new family, Natalie.

10. It's called "being a rock star."

9. "I can't believe you still listen to Joni Mitchell." - "I love her. And true love lasts a lifetime."

8. If you've never come home after a long day of work and just danced your ass off, well, you're missing out. I recommend this song. Not that I do this regularly.

7. "It's a felt tip pin."

6. Going for a walk down by the river while listening to Dido when you feel blue? We've all been there, dude. Don't lie.

5. Mr. Bean to the rescue. #RealHero

4. That guy? That guy doesn't need evidential proof. Because that guy? That guy you can tell - you can tell - believes in true love.

3. "We need Kate. And we need Leo. And we need them now."

2. To the people who claim "Love Actually" is emotionally dishonest I have three simple words: Emma fucking Thompson.

1. Keira Knightley's Hat. But this goes without saying.