Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: Too Late For Tears (1949)

There is nothing more quintessentially American than a briefcase chock full of cold hard cash. It is because, I imagine, America fancies itself the land of opportunity, the nation that from sea to shining sea believes in new starts and second chances. It is also because, I imagine, America is strictly business, capitalistic through and through, and cash goes hand in hand with new starts and second chances. You can't have one without the other.


It's why the briefcase of money is such a staple of the cinema. It's all you need to set a plot in motion. We didn't need any backstory on Josh Brolin's Llewellyn Moss in "No Country For Old Men" to understand why he goes to such absurd lengths to keep his desperate paws on that cashed-up suitcase. No, a simple "yeah" upon seeing the stacks and stacks of green laid out before him provided all the necessary motivation. Of course, he'd risk his life and wife's life and his mother-in-law's life for it. What choice did he have? IT WAS A BRIEFCASE FULL OF MONEY! We weren't surprised in "A Simple Plan" when Bridget Fonda's Sarah Mitchell responds in the negative to her spouse's supposed hypothetical query of whether she would keep a gym bag of Ben Franklins upon finding it only to pivot in an instant when she actually sees a gym bag of Ben Franklins poured onto the kitchen counter in front of her. After all, it'd buy a ton of groceries.

There is something different about Jane Palmer (Lizabeth Scott, frankly terrifying), however, something more expectant, something more entitled. As "Too Late For Tears" (also known as "Killer Bait") opens she and her husband Alan (Arthur Kennedy) are driving somewhere she doesn't want to go, arguing about it, signaling tension in the marriage, when another car roars by and hurls a briefcase chock full of cold hard cash into their backseat. Seems it's intended for someone else, for Danny (Dan Duryea), who gives chase, but the second that Jane sees what's in that case she gets this smile like Sharon Stone in "Casino" sizing up some millionaire yokel at the craps table and turns into Ryan Gosling in "Drive" and takes the wheel and guns the engine. That's her money now, see, the gods of get-rich having finally answered her many, many prayers.

The story that follows in director Byron Haskin's noir, which was written by Roy Huggins which he adapted from his own serial for the Saturday Evening Post, is as sinister as a noir night is darkly unyielding, the emotional temperature of its protagonist growing positively more frigid with each passing scene. There is a moment tilted toward the beginning when her hubby, struggling to understand her financial cravings, opines that he tried his hardest to give her what she wanted, she scoffs: "All you ever gave me were twelve down payments and intallments for life." Uff da. It suggests the film's yearning to comment on the ancient chasm between the rich and the poor, but "Too Late For Tears" doesn't really have the gumption to explore that angle. Instead it's an arresting, mind-quaking thriller in which Jane is the jarring anti-hero and greed is the femme fatale.


Danny, the ne'er-do-well to whom the case belongs, inevitably comes calling for it, and plays the obligatory part of a 1950's sexist to the hilt, slapping Jane a few times when he doesn't get answers he likes and incessantly calling her "tiger." He means that ironically, of course, but the joke's on him because as the film progresses he's revealed as a paper tiger, a weak-kneed alcoholic who gets out-toughed and out-foxed by the woman he simply assumed assumed was his prey. To balance out the plethora of hard-heartedness, Huggins' screenplay turns Alan's sister, Kathy (Kristine Miller), conveniently living across the hall from his brother and her wife, into the angel-hearted opposition of Jane's cool reign of terror. Her ally becomes a purported old Air Force buddy of Alan, one Don Blake, played by my late Iowa homeboy Don DeFore, with an awesome kind of aweshucks disquisitiveness, his real motives under wraps.

He labels himself a "white knight" which I was suppose makes Jane the black knight, and yet it is still hard not to be reeled into her spectacularly selfish plight, not from empathy but from squeamish self-realization. It's difficult not to think, deep down in those places we only talk about at smoky bars in Acapulco, that if that briefcase full of cold hard cash landed in our backseat that we wouldn't get hyrdogen psychosis and do the same damn thing.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

30 for 30: Brian and The Boz

Early in director Thaddeus D. Matula's exploration of mid-80's college football superstar Brian Bosworth, he offers behind-the-scenes footage of what went into creating a gloriously cheesy Me Decade athletic "hero" poster - in this case, one re-casting Bosworth himself as existing in The Land Of The Boz. The perfectitude of this indescribably silly bit of wall hanging merchandise, however, had never so forcefully occurred to me. And it finally did occur to me because the theme of this ESPN "30 for 30" documentary, hammered home again and again, is that Brian Bosworth and The Boz were two different people, not unlike The Great and Powerful Oz and his more mild-mannered Professor counterpart. To be sure, Brian was not mild-mannered. As a linebacker at the University of Oklahoma he was arguably the best player in the nation, yet being the best player in the nation was insignificant next to the power of The Boz.


Though I first became a college football fan in the 1980's right as Bosworth was coming to prominence, I confess that I knew him almost exclusively as The Boz. I knew the haircut and the bandana and the sunglasses. I remember seeing him standing on the sideline in the 1987 Orange Bowl for which he had been suspended for taking steroids with the infamous t-shirt that read: "National Communists Against Athletes." I'm pretty certain that as a nine year old the full force of that shirt went flying over my head but still.....the image that I had of him as a player wasn't as a player but as that guy standing on the sideline in that shirt. As such, the film seeks to remedy that memory, or at least balance it out with a more intimate portrait of the man who brought The Boz to life.

The problems of Brian, the film argues, can be traced, as they so often are, directly to the son's father. It is made clear that while Foster Bosworth's incredibly tough love cultivated his son's football playing skills, it was the Oklahoma Sooners football coach, Barry Switzer, who showed up at Bosworth's high school in a beaver coat like a Great Plains Big Daddy Kane to recruit him that cultivated The Boz. In fact, several times, Brian reflects that Coach Switzer became his real father figure, an admittance that plays both as loving and tragic. And clearly the film's framing device of Brian and his son going through old memorabilia, while maudlin and somewhat circumspect since every confession comes with the knowledge the camera is right there, evokes the sensation of attempting to ensure he is the father figure to his own son.

At the same, "Brian and The Boz" contends this self-professed "extremist" was the birth of the modern athlete, one in which marketing a public image plays as big a role as feats of strength. It's not inaccurate, and the film makes clear that in a very real way his "National Communists Against Athletes" t-shirt was ahead of its time, the opening salvo fired against the oppressive NCAA in a war between them and the athletes they care for take advantage of that continues to this day.

The film's subject seems genuinely contrite about his actions, including a tell-all book co-authored with Rick Reilly in his early twenties that helped level the boom on the football program, even if the boom likely would have been leveled with or without him. Still, it's not difficult to detect a wistful yearning for those halcyon days he essentially threw away. In repose, the aged Mr. Bosworth sometimes recalls the aged Mickey Rourke, and parallels to Rourke's "The Wrestler" become more and more evident as the film progresses.

Yes, he tells his son, as he removes that "Communist" Orange Bowl t-shirt from a box and holds it up, that this bit of fabric was the beginning of the end and his one true regret. But......he still has the shirt. He still holds onto it. The Boz may have tarnished Brian, but Brian can't let The Boz go. Hell, who could?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Citizenfour

The crux of "Citizenfour" is the clandestine meeting in June of 2013 between the film's director Laura Poitras, Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill and Edward Snowden, leaker extraordinaire, most famous whistleblower to roam the earth, in which he provided comprehensive details on the cloak and dagger spy program being conducted by the NSA (National Security Agency) as a purported means to protect our civil liberties that formed the explosive bits of journalism metaphorically tearing the roof off the US Capital rotunda. Aesthetically, "Citizenfour" is fairly elementary, because when the subject of your film is forced to communicate either by spectacular email encryption or strictly covert face-to-face encounters it prevents scenic "60 Minutes"-ish walk and talks. No, if on the precipice of becoming the Obama Administration's Public Enemy #1 you're holed up for days at a time in a non-descript Hong Kong hotel with the curtains drawn.


Those curtains, however, allow for one of Poitras’s unfussy artistic flourishes, specifically a shot of Snowden standing behind them and peering out at the packed streets below after just being told – in the film's most hysterical line – that the street housing the apartment he has been forced to flee is suddenly jam-packed with construction vans. The shot, I reckon, must have been staged, but so what if it was? That's who he is in this context, a man providing not merely a peek behind the governmental curtain but ripping it off its hooks and casting it aside. Naturally that has led to labels of both patriot and pariah, and President Obama is seen on camera in archival footage essentially agreeing with the latter claim by rejecting the first claim, never mind that Sam Adams, the O.A.P. (Original American Patriot), was seen as a pariah by King George III.

Did that last sentence expose my biases? Of course it did! "Citizenfour" slants in favor of Snowden, because to acquire access to him it had to, and seeing as how the information he discloses on camera is the same information we all have already read and discussed and considered it is nigh impossible to enter the movie theater not having already made up one's mind about his actions, as evidenced by the two women at my screening who kept chiming in with audible hoots and hollers of support for Mr. Snowden that would not have been out of place at any old propagandistic-themed evening out. But as Greenwald himself said at the film's New York Festival premiere: "I always thought that the most powerful part of the story was not going to be the documents or the revelations, as important as those are. It was going to be the power of his story, the acts of this very ordinary young man who decided very consciously to sacrifice his whole life for a political principle."

Snowden's repeated assertion that the secrets he's divulging be the focal point rather than himself becomes wishful thinking. As Greenwald's quote suggests, it is not only virtually impossible for the person telling the story not to become the focal point, but that "Citizenfour's" overriding intent is to put a personality to the face of its title. And even if Poitras pairs a news anchor remarking how the entire episode evokes a John le Carré novel with a shot of Snowden as he trims his facial hair, trades his glasses for contacts and gels up his hair in an effort to evade detection after his name goes public, his personality comes across as the diametric opposite of any kind of international man of mystery.

The soul-searching he undoubtedly underwent about what such an act would and does bring about happened long before Poitras’s camera rolled. Nevertheless, Snowden's genuine matter-of-factness in approaching these earth-rattling developments is affecting, and all evidence on screen suggests he did what he did simply because he thought it was the necessary thing to do.

Of course, the obvious irony is that by exposing our country's compromising of personal freedom, he more or less forfeited all of his own, doomed to exile, to airport terminals to avoid extradition, and all at the expense of loved ones (though it is revealed his longtime girlfriend eventually re-connects with him). And while the film makes clear his sacrifice has inspired others to potentially blow the whistle, it still ultimately plays less like a hymn of exaltation than a pained elegy for what seems, frankly, an inevitable future ending. This is a film made most haunting by what it really is - cinematic life insurance.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Whiplash

Did you know Jo Jones, percussionist in Count Basie's Orchestra, once threw a cymbal at Charlie Parker's head? If you didn't, rest assured, you will by the time "Whiplash" concludes, considering it's the go-to dictum for Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a hot-headed instructor at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory, who employs the dictum's purported wisdom as a means to excuse his abusive teaching methods. In that way, writer/director Damien Chazelle's film is a little like what might have happened if Coach Herb Brooks of "Miracle" was tasked with coaxing balletic perfection out of Nina Sayers in "Black Swan." Of course, Brooks' medieval approach to instructing was excused because he beat the Russians in the midst of the Cold War and Nina's tale was primarily a ghastly yet beautiful descent into madness whereas "Whiplash" yearns to genuinely explore the notion of psychological torment yielding genius. The torment is palpable. The genius? Eh......


Fletcher co-opts nineteen year old Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) as his protégé, quickly promoting him from flipping note pages of jazz percussionists in line ahead of him to become the victim of his browbeating tirades behind the actual drum kit of his core competition group. Introduced as the product of a good-hearted if quiet father (Paul Reiser), vulnerable and terrifically shy, hardly able to muster the courage and verbiage to ask out the kindly concessionist (Melissa Benoist) at the movie theater he frequents, he consciously comes across as a cipher. Yes, he is afforded some jargon about wanting to be one of "the greats", but his skill seems less the point to Fletcher than his apple-faced disposition ripe for manipulation.

That's where the film grows curious. It's about jazz, sort of, in that way "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" is about aliens. Jazz is primarily about individual expression within a musical collective and yet all sense of Andrew's individual expression is stifled. "Not my tempo," Fletcher repeatedly intones when he disapproves of his pupil's tapping of the beat. In other words, screw your tempo - I want my tempo. Outfit nearly the whole ninety minutes in black slacks and black short-sleeved shirt showing off rippled muscles, Fletcher evokes an archetypal Movie Bad Guy, never more than an early shot in which Andrew catches sight of Fletcher through a door window only to quickly duck from sight when Fletcher senses being watched and turns.

It could possibly be posited that his villainous ways are the device by which he cultivates the drumming brilliance of Andrew. The problem, however, is that little evidence is provided in the way of how Fletcher's student grows or expands as an actual percussionist. All we see are marathon speed drumming sessions that yield blood, sweat and tears while the music itself is paid virtually no mind. The closest the film gets to its hypothetical subject doubles as the closest the film gets to a genuine heartwarming moment, one in which Andrew stumbles upon Fletcher sitting in on piano with a jazz outfit at some small club.

There and only there, a sliver of joy can be detected on Fletcher's face as he taps ever so lightly at the keys, and we wonder if he is merely another in a long line of "misunderstood" characters. Alas, once he sees Andrew and calls him over for a drink, there is no talk of the music. Instead he trots back out the story of Jo Jones hurling the cymbal at Charlie Parker's head, reducing the revolutionary sounds of Bird to an isolated event like "Walk the Line" reducing John R. Cash to the sum of his older brother dying.

Thus, when the much talked about concluding drum solo arrives after the downturn of the second act, it feels neither triumphant nor like a validation of the mentor's methods. This is no deconstruction of how genius is nurtured - this is a horror movie, and Terrence Fletcher is the black-clad monster assimilating his prey.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Movies: The (Real) Magic Kingdom (2000th Post)

Believe it or not, Cinema Romantico has been clogging up the interwebs for going on 2000 posts now. I have no long wind-up regarding that milestone. I only have this post. And thanks for reading.


Abbas Kirastomi’s “Taste of Cherry” ends with the protagonist laying down in a dirt hole of his own creation in the midst of a rain storm, the sky hardly illuminated by strikes of lightning, to pass away, possibly, and wait for another character to show up to bury him, possibly. This is a substantial open end, paving the way for much rumination, not so much narratively as philosophically. But then something happens. Another shot appears, and we are suddenly watching someone film a movie. In fact, we are watching Kirastomi on location filming the movie we have just finished watching. It is jarring, pulling you out of your emotional experience and reminding you that “it’s just a movie.” And that, I confess, is why I sort of hate it.

A couple Julys ago I watched “Un Plan Parfait” as part of The Music Box’s French film festival here in Chicago, and I mostly did not enjoy it. And that’s fine. You can’t enjoy every movie, unless you lie to yourself, and once it ended I could vanquish my seat and leave it behind. Except, I couldn’t, and I couldn’t because “Un Plan Parfait” chose to slap a smattering of comic outtakes over the closing credits. Naturally this caused everyone to stay in their seats until the outtakes concluded, and as I had chosen a seat in the center, I was stuck. I lowered my head and sighed. I, in fact, went so far as to do what we all do these days when momentarily outraged – I Tweeted my abhorrence of closing credit outtakes. A friend replied in the spirit of Kirastomi that “it reminds you it's all just a structured fantasy.”

This was my re-brought to the forefront of my mind in light of a recent New Yorker article by Ben Yagoda examining the phenomena of comedians “breaking”. The main example they cite is Jimmy Fallon, the Tonight Show host and one-time Saturday Night Live cast member who was constantly guilty of “breaking” in those late night/early morning sketches. Yagoda goes back and forth, providing points and counterpoints, citing as illustrious an example as “Hamlet” to demonstrate that breaking is bad but also noting how when a performer who rarely breaks – such as Stephen Colbert – does break, it kicks the humor up a notch. None of that is what truly stoked my interest, however. No, what did was a quote from the legendary Peter Sellers when it was revealed that his director on “Being There”, Hal Ashby, chose to include outtakes of Sellers breaking over the closing credits. Sellers was furious and cried: “It breaks the spell, do you understand? Do you understand, it breaks the spell! Do you hear me, it breaks the spell.”

A spell, as Merriam-Webster defines it, is “a spoken word or form of words held to have magic power”, and the cinema, as Orson Welles instructed, is “(where) the magic begins.” “The camera,” Welles said, “is a medium via which messages reach us from another world that is not ours and that brings us to the heart of a great secret.” In that sense, the camera becomes the sorcerer, we its subjects.

Oh, it can be dangerous to wade this far off the shore of reality and into the Magic of the Movies mill pond. “Is there a phrase more hackneyed than ‘the magic of the movies’?” wonders J. Hoberman. Then again, Hoberman does not necessarily dispute the argument that movies are magic, noting that “From the moment of their invention at the end of the 19th century, motion pictures have been perceived as simultaneously hyper natural and supernatural.” Rather his overarching thesis states that “Movies don’t necessarily record reality but they always construct it.” He concludes: “That’s what makes them magical.”


To that point, one of cinema’s most eternal tales goes that the Lumière Brothers’ 1896 public showing of “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat”, a 50 second silent film documenting, uh, a train’s arrival at La Ciotat, the audience members screamed and fled for fear the steam locomotive was about to magically emerge from the screen and plow over them. This incident has been debunked, and argued for, and debunked again because just like scientists going over every inch of Loch Ness with sonar, scholars are always yearning to prove and disprove myths rather than allowing myths to remain, you know, mythical. And as Parker Tyler once so astutely noted: “Myths are not factual but symbolic. I assume movies are likewise.” In other words, whether or not audience members at “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” factually feared for their lives is less the point than the urban legend’s symbolic underpinning – that is, reconstructing the reality of an arriving train paved the way for believing the train was about to magically depart the screen.

I took in “Million Dollar Baby” at the theater four times, and each time when Maggie Fitzgerald first emerges from the gymnasium darkness, hood drawn over head, a smile less cocksure than confidently quaint, and steps toward the camera, almost into it, she became my personal Train at La Ciotat. Perhaps my conscious knew she was merely a character on a screen but my subconscious presumed her to be alive - or, at least, an apparition, floating just out of reach in the motion picture ether. This is the Magic of the Movies in which I devoutly believe, not some cockamamie Academy-scripted banter between Ben Stiller and Kayley Cuoco.

A movie may reconstruct reality but it still casts a spell, and to egregiously slap a few ham-fisted outtakes to garner a few extra laughs on the end or to present raw footage of yourself, as director, on location with a camera and lighting and sound equipment and best boys? I cannot abide.

It breaks the spell, do you understand? Do you understand, it breaks the spell! Do you hear me, it breaks the spell.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Star Was Born...

As Peter Jackson's "Heavenly Creatures" opens we are introduced to Melanie Lynskey's frightfully inward, dreamy Pauline, a Christchurch,  New Zealand schoolgirl. One routine morning, Juliet (Kate Winslet), is introduced to Pauline's class by the school's headmistress. It's French class and so Juliet is asked to pick a French name for herself. She chooses Antoinette. The teacher, obligatorily haggard Miss Waller, returns to the lesson.

MISS WALLER: "Now, irregular verbs in the present subjunctive...'qu'il vienne'."
JULIET: "Excuse me, Miss Waller... you've made a mistake. 'Je doutais qu'il vienne' is in fact the spoken subjunctive."
MISS WALLER: "It is customary to stand when addressing a teacher...'Antoinette.'"

Juliet stands.

JULIET: "You should have written 'vint.'"


The grin. Goddam, that grin. Films are fantasy, and "Heavenly Creatures" is specifically about fantasy (albeit disturbingly so) and that haughty fuck you in the form of correct grammar was Kate the Great embodying the fantasy of every fed-up current, former or future schoolchild who just wants to tell his or her smarmy schoolteacher to piss right on off. It pulls us into her orbit, just like it pulls Pauline into her orbit, in a cinematic flash.

Back in August when the grand dame, acting empress Lauren Bacall passed, I noted in my obit that her very first scene in the movies was the sort of introductory sequence a great many great actresses are never afforded. And it's true. For every Lauren Bacall wondering if Humphrey Bogart's got a match, there's Hope Davis as a Parisian ticket agent telling Catherine O'Hara to try stand-by. Kate the Great, however, pulled a stone-cold Bacall.

"Heavenly Creatures" was released theatrically in America twenty years ago today, and with its release Ms. Winslet made her feature film debut, and she debuted by setting that sniveling professeur de français straight. It's like Kate was striding into the classroom of every starlet in Hollywood, sizing up their acting equations on the blackboard and saying, "Yeah, your notes are nice and all, but I'll just take it from here."

Friday, November 14, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Lineup (1958)

Director Don Siegel based "The Lineup" on the CBS television series that began in 1954 for which he directed the pilot, and initially it really shows. The first twenty minutes feel less like a hard-hitting piece of noir than a basic if solidly helmed police procedural. Its seeming protagonist, Lt. Ben Guthrie (Warner Anderson), is sensible but wholly drab and you wonder why they centered an entire TV show around him. But then police procedurals on the boob tube take solace in the familiar, a structure repeating week after week, and that structure is the set-up for Siegel's macabre joke, one in which the cops in grey suits are just stiffs and the robbers are vibrant if disquieting personalities.

 
Guthrie attempts to piece together a crime involving an apparent wheelman named Lefty (because one in three 1950's wheelmen were named Lefty) who steals a taxi to abscond with a briefcase only to shoot a cop and get killed in return. When Guthrie determines the case belongs to American tourist who has returned from Hong Kong, he and we are immediately suspicious at the revelation of a statutette contained inside. After all, if the movies have taught us anything it's that no stautette is merely a decorative artifact. Indeed, the porcelain piece is hiding heroin, and though this would appear to put the finger on the tourist, that's too obvious. And at this point, "The Lineup" goes its own way. It is said, in fact, per TCM, that Siegel was wary of giving the film the same title as its source material, and it is understandable. You don't need a lineup to pinpoint the main attraction of "The Lineup."

If noir so often gives a voice to the anti-hero, here it gives a voice to a straight-up miscreant. Dancer (Eli Wallach) is a bad man. I don't mean bad as in good - I mean bad as in bad. "A psychopath with no inhibitions" is what Julian (Robert Keith), his boss, calls him glowingly, like a starstruck father. Over the course of their mentor/protégé relationship, however, that gives the film its wickedly crooked heart he will come to understand the full weight of that statement. Gradually, insidiously and hypnotically, he has control of his operation wrested from him, and, in turn, Wallach the actor wrests control of the film from everyone around him.

The bad guys’ game is to have unwitting, unknowing vacationers become drug mules, a racket that is not only effective but that effectively demonstrates their feelings toward humanity - as in, non-existent. This is embodied in a hauntingly matter-of-fact sequence that finds Dancer more or less flirting with a young mother, Dorothy (Mary Laroche), to get to her daughter to get to her doll to get to his heroin. In spite of the preceding violent and chilly air he has so ably cultivated, Wallach in this moment skillfully flips on a dime and exudes such warmth that it reels you in even if you know it's a put-on.

As the film winds thrillingly through the streets of San Francisco to a concluding car chase that cleverly puts the squeeze on our chief villain by way of freeway concrete, it becomes abundantly clear that Julian had it right – Dancer has no inhibitions. And when he takes Dorothy's daughter hostage in a last-ditch attempt to evade the inevitable vice it'll put a lump in your throat. Heck, even Julian looks at him with a taken-aback gawk. In that moment, you believe he could be capable of anything.