' Cinema Romantico

Friday, May 27, 2016

Friday's Old Fashioned: Air Force (1943)

“Air Force” was released in 1943 with WWII still raging, as the closing credits acknowledge, and it’s always difficult to watch movies like this in hindsight since they were, whether we like it or not, American-styled propaganda, primarily intended to bolster Yankee spirits and pitch new recruits to join the war effort. The movie itself opens on December 6th 1941, just a day, of course, before the day that would live in infamy, and certainly “Air Force” feels like a film commissioned in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, with constant asides about how Japanese pilots are talentless lily livers who lack the skills or chutzpah to take on their American counterparts in one on one aerial dogfights. The only time we really even see the Japanese, in fact, is a late battle scene where a bunch of their officers stand haplessly on an aircraft carrier deck looking up at American planes swirling all around them through binoculars before getting blown to bits, the straight men in a patriotic sketch. You can imagine members of a 1943 audience throwing their caps in the air, which I don’t mean as a disparagement but a sign o’ the times. After all, I lived in an era of “Zoolander’s” post-9/11 NYC skyline edit; in the moment, anything goes.

Still, the focus of “Air Force”, directed by Howard Hawks, is less on running down the enemy than talking up the heroes from the home front, specifically, in this case, the considerable crew of the United States Army Air Corps B-17D bomber Mary-Ann as they fly from the coast of California to Hawaii to the speck that is Wake Island and on to the Philippines and the opening stanza of the Pacific Theatre. In watching these men, all with their varying positions, from pilot on down, we see how the intricate hulking mammoth that were the Flying Fortresses needed a crew working in precise harmony, a team, if you will, which was a sentiment espoused in another war movie, “The Fighting 69th”, that Cinema Romantico reviewed in March and that is espoused again in “Air Force” by the pilot, Michael Aloysius Quincannon Sr. (John Ridgely). “We are all part of a team here; each of us depends on the other; we support and help one another.”

The idea in “The Fighting 69th” was that one lone wolf needed to find a way to fit into his regiment, and briefly it seems as if “Air Force” might go the same route with Aerial Gunner Joe Winocki (John Garfield), who shows up to specifically talk the Air Force down. In fact, he’s determined to drop out of the armed forces, until he sees the aftermath of Pearl Harbor from above, a starkly rendered scene, and suddenly changes his tune. This, however, is only a small portion of the film, and he quickly blends into the unit, evoking that need (demand?) for unity in a time of war.

At first, the title “Air Force”, seems sturdy if a little simple. Oh hey, let’s make a movie about the Air Force called “Air Force!” But a strategy behind that moniker gradually emerges. Because even as it centers on this sizable crew, they encounter so many others along the way, crewmen on the ground, commanding officers left injured and others who are hoping for a crack at the enemy. Why, there is even a dog. They pick up Lt. Tex Rader (James Brown) at Hawaii, a fighter pilot who tags along and can't help but express down-home disgust at these flying fortresses in comparison to his beloved single seat fighter planes. It's good natured, though, which defines the whole film, a film that was never better for me than the scene of Tex, Quincannon, co-pilot William Williams (Gig Young) and Bombardier Thomas McMartin (Arthur Kennedy) all crowded around the Mary-Ann's controls and giving each other the WWII-era silver screen version of shit. They don't get along, not exactly, but they're in this together and so they keep it friendly. I wouldn't say it made me want to run out and enlist, but then it's not 1943.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Five Potential Neighbors 3 Adversaries

Following on the heels of the successful “Neighbors” (2014), which racked up $150 million in domestic box office on a mere $18 million budget, the inevitable sequel was released last week and will no doubt propagate another sequel because even if the Almighty First Weekend box office haul left those who study such things feeling a little blue, well, it’s still Hollywood where sequels often correlate less to how much they make and more to suede bootlicking. And so we got to thinking about how if Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) did battle with a frat next door in the first one and then waged war with a sorority in the second who the enemy would be in “Neighbors 3”? What a question! Apparently such a good question that Seth Rogen and Zac Efron already beat me to the punch (and I started this post before their spoof - I swear) by pitching “Neighbors 3: Zombies Rising.” To which I say......zombies? I think we can do a little better than that.

Five Potential Neighbors 3 Adversaries 

Graduates. Remember The Cougars, an ephemeral name bestowed upon a group of haughty graduates in Noah Baumbach’s esteemed “Kicking and Screaming” by their most vexatious member, a self-impressed lot sartorially adherent to suit jackets with leather elbow patches that spent most of their time drinking cheap beer and debating random nothings with righteous fury? So Mac and Kelly will move in next door to a few of these highbrow new alums, finding themselves engaged not so much in escalating violent warfare with young bros who won’t shut up but mind games of awe-inspiring pointless pomposity with a bunch of jerky faux-intellects.

Professor Glitterati. Mac and Kelly Radner move in next door to a seemingly uninhabited mansion, once idyllic but now drowned out by overgrowth. All is well, until they began hearing sounds late at night. Not loud sounds, mind you, but quiet sounds, yet still ominous, glasses clinking and cocktail chatter. Slag Glass lamps burn the midnight oil. One evening they see a massive accordion folder placed into the trunk of a car by a bearded man in rumpled khakis and corduroy blazer. Kelly convinces Mac to spy on these mysterious goings-on whereby they discover the house next door is actually The Lodge for a Fraternal Order of Professors who determine who and who does not earn tenure at the university. Armed with this information, Mac and Kelly set out to expose the truth, but the Fraternal Order of Professors will not go down without a fight.

Water Polo Team. Mac and Kelly Radner move in next door to the entire Silverado Canyon College men’s Water Polo team which means that 22 chiseled dudes are walking around half the movie in speedos which naturally prompts Mac to feel completely emasculated. In response, he re-enrolls in school all as a ploy to join the Water Polo team which leads to innumerable shots of a flabby chested Seth Rogen in a water polo helmet floundering in the water. COMEDY GOLD ENSUES!!!!!!!

Townies. Unable to find a new home that fits their budget, Mac and Kelly Radner are forced to temporarily re-locate to a small apartment situated above The Hilltop Tavern, an un-acclaimed townie bars. Alas, Mac and Kelly’s newborn baby wails so much that it enrages the townies below, all of whom prefer to drink while in silence, and prompts them to take drastic if casual action to ensure these upstairs interlopers leave them to wallow in their daytime PBR in peace.

Suburbanites. So desperate not to find themselves in a third situation involving college-aged hooligans, Mac and Kelly Radner decide to become those people (“I never thought we’d become those people!” cries Mac) and flee for the suburbs, Brightwood Meadows to be exact, only to wind up locked into a Homeowners Association lorded over Bonnie Nordgaard (Nicole Kidman), a ruthless stickler for the most egregious HOA bylaws. Small confrontations eventually yield all-out war waged via spectacularly barbed passive aggression.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

30 For 30: Believeland

In recounting the Cleveland Browns professional football franchise re-locating, at the behest of owner Art Modell, from its home city of 49 years to Baltimore in 1996, the team’s beloved running back Earnest Byner says that it was, for Cleveland, like a losing a member of the family. That is the sort of phrase that will prompt a fuss from the intellectually haughty about how people take sports too seriously, and so be it, because that, as ESPN’s latest 30 for 30 documentary “Believeland” points out again and again, is the city of Cleveland’s relationship to sports; they take it too seriously. That’s why Scott Raab, the doc’s preeminent talking head, wrote a book titled “The Whore of Akron” which referred to Ohio basketball hero LeBron James when he departed the Cleve for South Beach so infamously in 2010. The Whore of Akron? Yeah, that’s taking sports too seriously.

People don’t come to Cleveland, we are told; no, they start in Cleveland and stay there, or leave and come back. It’s not a city of transplants, in other words, it’s a city of Clevelanders, where the city’s fierce connection to its three sports franchises – the Browns, the Indians (baseball) and the Cavaliers (basketball) – is inestimable and inherited. This latter fact is translated in Raab’s interview at some unnamed diner, where he sits with his teenage son who hardly talks, just listening as his dad spins yarns of Cleveland sports misery, how no team has won a championship since 1964, and how each failure to do so seems more gut-wrenching than the last. It’s as moving an image as it is terrifying, an assimilation of fandom heartbreak.

The first half-hour of Andy Billman's film is its best, and some of the best material of any of the 30 for 30 documentaries, focusing on connecting the trajectory of Cleveland's up and downs as a city to the successes and failures of its sports teams. Author Wright Thompson explains this in swift detail, how the city boomed during its postwar manufacturing period of the 50’s, mirroring the glorious rise of Paul Brown’s Browns (which were named for him) before Brown was forced out and the team’s fortunes begin to collapse in the 60’s and on into the 70’s, just like the city’s gradual industrial decline. This is an intriguing connection ripe for being “Believeland’s” central subject, but Billman is oddly content with this informational appetizer rather than continuing to track the economic ebbs and flows of Cleveland in conjunction with the city’s fragile sports psyche.

Instead “Believeland” forsakes the tantalizing possibilities of fusing civics with sports to simply go the way of so many 30 for 30 docs by devolving into a glorified highlight reel - or, I should say, a lowlight reel, since most of what's shown here chronicles all of Cleveland’s athletic failures so infamous they generally go by individual, capitalized names like The Drive, The Fumble and The Shot. This is little more than a rolodex of pain, one content to settle for mostly banal observations from its interviewees that all essentially boil down to the chestnut “I Couldn’t Believe It”.

The doc gets its mojo back, a little, near the end, when it returns to the famous subject of LeBron James spurning Cleveland (in a horrific television special that was produced by ESPN which conspicuously goes unmentioned cuz Bristol, CT ain’t about the introspective state, see) only to return several years later and how that idea relates, as Wright Thompson puts it, to the daughters and sons saddled with guilt for leaving Cleveland too. But this is not really scrutinized, just suggested, raised and then moved aside for more reminiscences that, specific details aside, could, frankly, be about any team in any city. Cleveland, we are told, who is resolutely itself, and yet, by the end, Believeland could be Anytown USA.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club

Outside the Midwest, the neon glow near a highway typically translates to a diminutive nondescript motel, the kind that looks left over from the Eisenhower Administration and still advertises “Cable TV” like that’s a big deal. In the Midwest, however, and especially in Wisconsin, that roadside neon glow is just as likely to indicate a Supper Club. It's a term you think nothing of in these parts where I’m from and continue to reside, until you get outside of these parts where “Supper Club” becomes a term of perplexing inscrutableness. As my girlfriend’s father, a lifelong east-coaster, put it when she texted him to say that we were going to see a documentary centered on Wisconsin Supper Clubs: “Huh?”

Well, if “Huh?” is your stock response to supper clubs too, rest assured, Director/Producer/Editor Holly De Ruyter is here to grant some perspective with her 51 minute documentary “Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club.” De Ruyter grew up just outside Green Bay, Wisconsin and therefore has an intimate history with the establishments in question, and delightfully takes the long way around in explaining what a Supper Club is, who it's for and why it endures.

The Old Fashioned of the title refers to three things. It refers to the Old Fashioned itself, a cocktail, always made with brandy, not bourbon or whiskey, which traditionally begins the meal and ends the meal. It refers to the history of the supper club itself, one that goes all the way back to Prohibition, which explains their predominance along rural highways and back roads, places you wouldn’t even think to look. And it refers to the dining experience itself, one of a more, to quote Ben Kenobi, civilized age, when a meal was not simply What You Ate but an Experience Shared. That latter point is the film’s central one.

De Rutyer visits numerous supper clubs, most with appealingly kitschy names and varying décor meant to approximate the individual owners’ respective tastes, and interviews myriad Supper Club proprietors and patrons, all of whom hone in on one detail more than any other – namely, to what degree the Supper Club fosters community. I lost count of how many times the phrase “Chain Restaurant” was employed in a politely derogatory way, meant to approximate the modern dining experience in the Midwest where convenience and speed take precedence over settling in and hanging out.

And that’s why “Old Fashioned” itself was sometimes at odds with the expressed mission statement of Supper Clubs. De Ruyter keeps the documentary moving at such a swift pace that you almost wish she abided more by that code of decelerating life’s wearying advance to really hunker down and take your time. Though many people get a turn to speak, you sometimes wish there fewer interviews and more eavesdropping, opting for a fly on the wall approach, allowing the Supper Club ethos to simply wash over us rather than being explicated by a series of occasionally repetitive talking heads. Even so, the primary initiative of “Old Fashioned” is Supper Club outreach, and at this De Ruyter succeeds by espousing those virtues with so much Midwestern mirth, never more so than with the starmaking couple of William & Judy. He never talks, she talks a lot, and together they illustrate a folksy comfort in their relationship that resembles the kind of folksy comfort inherent to the Supper Club itself.

It might seem like little more than a niche film, specifically catered toward the audience like the one I saw it with at the Gene Siskel Center here in Chicago, only 50 miles south of the Wisconsin border, where a good chunk of the audience seemed to already have personal relationships with places seen on the screen. Still, the film’s sermonizing is so breezily heartfelt, so earnestly welcoming, that I half-suspect that even if it was screened in, say, New York City, half the audience might be tempted to rent a car and cruise upstate, scouring the Catskills for a goyish place to get a brandy old fashioned.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Big Stone Gap

“Big Stone Gap”, which was written and directed by Adriana Trigiani, based on her book of the same name, opens with a voiceover by Ave Maria Mulligan (Ashley Judd) enlightening us to the particular qualities and quirks of the titular coal mining town in the mountains of Virginia where she grew up. And though she’s referring to her childhood in the 50’s, when the movie flashes forward twenty years a few moments later, hardly anything seems to have changed from what Ave Maria has just described, as if here in Big Stone Gap the 50’s just kind of blended with the 60’s which just kind of mixed with the 70’s. Why they continue putting on the very same play, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, they have always put on, as if any modification of the past by send the populace reeling. I mean, would it kill these people to try “Our Town”? Just once?! This lends a frozen-in-time feel, one that could easily come on like nostalgia, the a syrupy sensation that there is no place like home, and while that is there in doses, it is tempered by Ave Maria herself, a character who mostly defies the sugary confection by fearing that in all those years that passed from the voiceover to now, life itself has passed her by.

Ashley Judd is incredibly equipped to play these sorts of roles, vacillating between genuine joy and understated melancholy with the greatest of ease, often within the same scene, occasionally within the same moment, like the instance when she’s eating cake while standing up, listening and half trying to ignore another person spouting twaddle while taking great comfort in just snacking on that chocolate dessert. It’s sort of her entire state of being in capsule; having to shut out so much nonsense swirling around her, finding resolve from within, or in a plate of calories, of which there seem to be an awful lot. After all, she’s forty year olds and – egads! – not married. This, however, is more a concern of the town folk than the screenplay itself, which gives Ave Maria the willingness to fight back against that sort of Hallmark Channel hogwash. At one point, in fact, Ave Maria is referred to as Mount Vesuvius, standing there placidly, yet waiting to erupt, that eruption spurred by all the gossip pertaining to her relationship status. Often in Judd’s eyes you can see that eruption brewing. The question is, will it come?

Eh, yes and no. Much of the plot hinges on her friendship with Jack (Patrick Wilson), the local coal-mining hunk with solid sideburns, who clearly loves her, but hitches himself to Sweet Sue (Jane Krakowski) instead even though she’s clearly wrong for him and knows it, while Ave Maria hitches herself to Theodore Tipton (John Benjamin Hickey) even though he’s wrong for her and she knows it. Still, this isn’t a case of simple Idiot Plot, the characters having to wear invisible blinders to the truth, He wants the simple life that Big Stone Gap offers, which he sees in Sweet Sue and not Ave Maria, because Ave Maria is clearly itching for something else, and has been for a long time. Home Is Where The Heart Is, and All That Jazz, but sometimes you still have to Go Walkabout, and “Big Stone Gap”, for all its easy-bake storytelling, still has the gumption to know that Ave Maria is not the kind of character who would fall into the conventional narrative trap of sticking to the path rather than wandering into the deep, dark forest.

At least, it seems like it does, which is where “Big Stone Gap” goes off the rails. Though the film is set in coalmine country, you never really the soot on the faces of the miners, just as the one mine “incident” is less about the inherent dangers of that perilous industry than a drawn out excuse to put Ave Maria and Jack together. And this is fine, of course, because “Big Stone Gap” isn’t “North Country”; it’s a warm-hearted romance, one made with so much granulated sugar, food coloring and flavor extract, but still. And yet, this setting, which emits a sense of “place” in the early-going, begins to feel more and more staged as the film progresses, especially as all the characters around Ave Maria suddenly begin pulling strings in order to prevent what she seems to so desperately want. By the end, when everyone gathers in the town ampitheater, determined to keep Ave Maria right where she is, Big Stone Gap felt more like Seahaven, and I began to fear that Ave Maria was simply starring in her own version of The Truman Show.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Ipcress File (1965)

As “The Ipcress File” opens, British Intelligence Agent Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) is in some nondescript London flat keeping some unnamed person across the street under surveillance. It’s not glamorous. He looks more like a properly groomed shut-in then a secret agent, which is how the film’s producers, Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli, wanted it. They were the team responsible for the James Bond franchise that had only recently achieved liftoff, and so Mr. Saltzman and Mr. Broccoli sought Len Deighton’s novel to make “The Ipcress File” as antithesis to the idealized exploits of Agent 007. They employed director Sidney J. Furie to craft a spy caper less sexy than tedious, comprised not of exotic locales and charming bad guys and beautiful ladies but dreary London locales and interchangeable stuffy British intel agents.

This was Michael Caine’s first starring role and it’s fairly impressive how un-determined he is to make it star-making. Indeed, if James Bond’s omnipresent grin is playful, the omnipresent grin of Harry Palmer is mischievous, occasionally even lurid, like a brief moment where he checks out his female co-worker. TCM indicates that Christopher Plummer was the original choice for the role, which I find ironic because throughout “The Ipcress File” I kept thinking of Plummer as a bank robbing psychopath in “The Silent Partner.” That’s not to say that Caine’s Palmer is a psychopath because he’s not; but the imperious tone they both project is eerily similar. The character of Palmer, after all, is only here on account of orders, a checkered past, and Caine plays straight to that idea, evoking a cocky indifference to all this administrative intelligence humdrum. And oh, is there a lot of humdrum.

Palmer gets transferred to a civil intelligence unit under the command of Dalby (Nigel Green), a smarmy bureaucrat. If everyone else in the unit is used to his obnoxious officiousness, Palmer, the fussy raconteur, is not. He does things his own way, as he must, which gets into him escalating amounts of trouble, with Dalby and pretty much everyone else, as he finds himself waist-deep in determining who has been draining the brains of several highly intelligent, highly important English doctors. This brain drain concept, however, subtly emerges as the same condition of all the agents in Dalby’s charge, transformed into mindless order-following drones on account of filing so many secret agent TPS Reports.

But don’t let all this talk of reconnoitering ennui fool you into thinking its some formally bland enterprise. It’s quite the contrary as Furie does up “The Ipcress File” with all kinds of photographic chicanery, so much that I’m dying to see its shot list because I can’t imagine the plethora of shot descriptions that Furie cooked up with his cinematographer Otto Heller. These descriptions would say things like: “From behind Harry Palmer” and “From behind an easy chair” and “From behind a plush couch” and “From behind a wooden pew” and “From behind a lampshade” and “From behind a tape recording reel”. It seems as if nearly every single shot in this movie is from behind something, or off to the side of something. There are many tilted camera angles, a la “The Third Man”, and often the camera is set far below or high above its character, but usually it is stationed behind something, evoking bugs or surveillance cameras or whatever other technical doo-hickeys well above my pay grade that intelligence organizations employ to keep watch. Everyone here is being watched, like Big Brother, and in his own way, Harry Palmer emerges as the UK’s answer to Winston Smith.

Because the film is 50 years old, we will throw caution to the wind and refrain from issuing a persnickety spoiler alert in advising that British Intelligence is – egads – brainwashing its own, attempting to transform them all into variations of Reggie Jackson in “The Naked Gun.” Palmer determines the ruse, yet becomes ensnared it anyway, literally fighting back against the brainwashing, although he’s figuratively fighting back against it every step of the way with his deadpan insolence, winning on both counts, a hero if there was over one. This is a one spy movie that has less to do with figuring out Who Did It than Hacking Through Red Tape.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Cinema Romantico's Cannes Brûlé Palme

As always, Cinema Romantico was unable to attend the Cannes Film Festival on account of scheduling conflicts pertaining to the Big 10 Track & Field Championships and the fact that the only outlet willing to grant us accreditation was Horse & Hound. But, of course, this inability to walk the red carpet be chased off the red carpet will not prevent us from officially bestowing the un-exalted Brûlé Palme, this blog's variation on Cannes' prestigious Palme d'Or, awarded each year to Cinema Romantico's favorite Cannes Film Festival attendee.

And so, following in the footsteps of past winners such as Kylie Minogue and Bill Murray, this year's recipient of Cinema Romantico's non-notable Brûlé Palme is.....

Kristen Stewart's Eyeshadow