Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Top 5 Movies From My Era Of Cinematic Innocence That I Didn't Like

We’re in the midst of 80’s month – well, 80’s Friday – here at Cinema Romantico and, of course, the 80’s remind me of a more innocent time, if you discount Reaganomics, Iran Contra, the AIDS crisis, and – okay. I get it. The 80’s were awful. That’s because every decade is awful once you remove the rose-colored glasses of youth and get down to brass tacks. I once posted a Springsteen video on Facebook and lamented how much I missed The 80’s and a friend said something to the effect of “Dude, you were twelve in The 80’s” to which say, well, yeah, exactly. That’s why I miss The 80’s. I had no idea what was going on. Once you realize what’s going on, everything is awful. Blue Pill or Red Pill? The 80’s were the last time I took the Blue Pill, and got to wake up in my bed and believe. But were they?

The 80’s and the early portions of The 90’s that were like The 80’s Minor were truly the last days of my Movie Innocence, when I would watch a movie and love it no matter what. “Crocodile Dundee” was on par with the entire Carole Lombard catalogue. “Young Guns II” was as good as anything John Ford ever made. “The Flamingo Kid” was basically “On the Waterfront” with Matt Dillon. “Summer Rental” was a paean to perfection, “The Secret Of My Success” was a stone cold masterpiece and “Cocktail” was “Citizen Kane”. Anything you put in front of me, I loved it, and I loved it true.

Of course, that’s all revisionist history, and I know it is because every once in a while someone will mention a movie from that period of time and it will trigger a repressed memory and I’ll think, “You know what? Even then I thought that movie was crap.” Perhaps I was always critic even as I was simultaneously always someone destined to defend “Serendipity” ‘til death do us part. This brings me to my overarching question – what are the movies from my era of innocence that I specifically recall as not having liked?

5 Movies From My Era Of Cinematic Innocence That I Didn't Like

The Golden Child (1986) / Coming To America (1988). These two Eddie Murphy films were both box office smashes, each one finishing in the Top 10 and “America” climbing all the way to #2, and yet I quite literally recall being bored stiff by “The Golden Child” (I remember virtually nothing about it) and thinking “Coming to America” was quite plainly unfunny. I have no idea where “The Golden Child” sits now in popular culture and don’t care to do the research to find out, but every now and then someone mentions “Coming to America” in a memorable light even as they acknowledge its awful stereotyping. Nope. Sorry. Even with rose-colored glasses, the stereotyping is as awful as the whole movie.

Dragnet (1987). In so many ways I feel this was my first understanding of a critical thesis I will argue to my dying day (and into the great beyond) – that is, The Theory Of Expectations Is Absolutely 100% Bogus. My expectations were so high for this movie and I didn’t care how high my expectations were for this movie, and do you know why I didn’t care how high my expectations were for this movie? Because I knew what I was watching and my expectations had nothing to do with its rocking the blasé to the extreme. Fact.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990). Almost twenty-five years later and I still feel like I’m cleaning sewer sludge off myself after this O.M.F.G soiree.

Space Camp (1986). When I was in third grade my family moved into a new house in a brand new development that only had three other houses. Other than us, it was wide open fields and one paved road down to 4th Street and the Pronto convenience store where you could rent a movie (this is one of the reasons why I didn't see, say, Antonioni for years and years - I didn't have the fancypants Netflix these kids do now, I had the Pronto) and I remember many Friday nights peddling down there excitedly on my bike to get a VHS tape we could crowd around. "Space Camp" is one of the times I remember being most excited to make that half-mile journey. This may have been post-Challenger, but the premise was still music to a kid's ears - a trip to Space Camp at Cape Canaveral turns into an ACTUAL trip into space. Sigh. The only detail I remember about watching the movie was a foreign feeling then which I know all too well now - that sensation that all my excitement had atrophied and I was simply left with moviegoing mush.

Spies Like Us (1985). New Year’s Day morning at the home of my parents’ friends in Red Wing, Minnesota. I watched this with their two sons. I may still have been at an age where I was naïve enough to think one day I’d marry Samantha Fox, but I wasn’t so naïve to not think, “God, this movie isn’t funny.” Nor to think, “Could we please turn on the Citrus Bowl now?”

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The To Do List

One of the most enduring cinematic myths involves the summer between high school graduation and migration to college. The foremost imprecision in these stories, however, typically results from the screenplay's need to make it seem as if these summers bring about Life Change, molding the protagonist into a New Man. Or, in the case of "The To Do List", a New Woman. But while the female at the center of Maggie Carey's supremely raunchy, 1993-set comedy does transform, her Life does not necessarily Change.

"American Pie" was set in the run-up to prom, another classic plot device, rather than the summer between graduation and higher learning, but covered the same ground as "The To Do List". There its quartet of male high school seniors yearned to have sex by prom to have summited said peak - uh, so to speak - before shipping off. But they were merely (mostly) good-hearted schmucks, whereas Aubrey Plaza's Brandy Klark is a socially awkward valedictorian taskmaster who doesn't drink.

Her BFFs, however, Fiona (Alia Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele, whose comedic timing soars), drag her to a kegger where she imbibes one too many Solo cups and has a close sexual encounter with the mythically named Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), with hair like Chris Hemsworth and a dedication to shirtlessness that rivals the Kate Hudson-era Matthew McConaughey. Suddenly, Brandy's sexual drive is kicked up a notch (or twelve), and so she does what any valedictorian probably about to go for a double major would do - she compiles an extravagant and technically precise list of every sexual act she seeks to attempt before college. "Pearl Necklace? That sounds classy." "It isn't."

Plaza is vastly older than the character she is playing, but then that's a staple of the genre, and Plaza is actually one year younger than Alan Ruck when he slipped into Cameron Frye's loafers. And besides, Plaza's age, in a way, enhances the role of a character who specifically feels older than she is, until she realizes last minute a la Diane Court that she has never "lived". This should pave the way for uproarious and filthy hijinks, and it does, yet Plaza's recognizable deadpan persona is precisely what makes "The To Do List" different from films of this ilk.

When she's giving a hand job at a showing of "The Firm", for example, she comes across like a Type A personality in a school science lab, not really enjoying it nor frightened by it, but just attempting to achieve the textbook result. Perhaps this is why the abundant lewdness is less over the top than identifiable, and Brandy's mother, played by a straight-faced Connie Britton, embodies this notion. Her character name is simply Mrs. Klark, evoking Eugene Levy's Jim's Dad of "American Pie", but whereas Jim's Dad was eager if hapless (like Clark Gregg's Mr. Klark), Mrs. Klark is eager but patient and helpful.

"The To Do List" unfortunately gets sidetracked in its side story of Brandy's summer job at the rundown swimming pool, run by Bill Hader (impressively phoning in a phoned-in character), which mostly provides an excuse to get Aubrey Plaza into various swimming suits which she can employ to tantalize (or not) Rusty Waters. And yes, there is a kinda, sorta courtship with overly polite Cameron (Johnny Simmons) in accordance with Cinematic Rom Com Law Chapter 305.

Ultimately the most important relationship is between Brandy and her BFFs, and it is the film's essential truth. Even if its DNA is in its gross-out patriarchs, it knows that the summer between twelfth-grader and collegian does not bring about as much change as the silver screen has led us to believe. Brandy may expand her carnal knowledge, but she is reminded that a couple boys she meets and screws over summer vacation cannot replicate nor signify more than what her alliance with Fiona and Wendy has cultivated.

The pivotal moment finds both idiot boys fighting on the lawn before Brandy, who stands over top of them, gawkily but mightily, reminding us that so many men desire to rule not because of megalomania but but because of insecurity. In that instant, she holds both those dufuses in the palm of her hand. She doesn't even understand the power she now holds. But she will.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Motel Life

Based on a novel by Willy Vlautin, “The Motel Life”, Alan and Gabe Polsky’s film from last year that fell off the radar as much as its fringe-dwelling main characters, intrinsically feels novelistic, skipping back and forth in time, siphoning out clues one by one as to how its characters got here and lingering on salient images the way a writer might linger on a description. Amidst a Sierra Nevada backdrop on the eastern edge of Nevada, this harshly phenomenal little film is set in the earliest days of the 90’s, yet evokes a weary timelessness, as if aside from certain social and technological advances it bears no difference to the American West where so many pioneers fled a couple centuries ago.

The Brothers Lee, Jerry and Frank (Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff, respectively), whose names purposely make them sound like a pair of idealistic bank robbers, are new wave pioneers with used Dodge Darts for covered wagons and seedy motels with neon signs as their encampments. Of course, as many aspiring settlers found, the promised land could render grim judgment, and in place of milk and honey the brothers have only found rot gut whiskey and convenience store burritos.

Born to a dying mother, she gives them explicit instructions as teenagers that if the state attempts to separate them, they should resist. Their fate, per parental decree, is to remain together, and they uphold this decree ‘til the bitter end, even after tragedy strikes in the early going when an effort to ride the rails goes awry and leaves Frank as a paraplegic. Yet they press on, side-by-side, and among the most moving moments in this extraordinarily moving film simply involve watching Jerry attend to the mundane rituals of caring for Frank. We won to their side not on account of pity for their plight but because their selflessness shines through.

The story, as such, takes it cue from Frank hitting a kid with his car and fleeing the crime scene. It is intended to generate the requisite tension, just as Jerry’s long gone love affair with the beauty Annie James (Dakota Fanning) is intended to ask the additional questions of What Happened? and Will They Get Back Together? Unfortunately this comes across more like contrivance, a means to spur the story forward, and Annie is underwritten, an emblem more than a person. None of this matters. The vast richness of “The Motel Life” stems not from arbitrary plot pieces but in its finely honed observations of everyday survival, in the guilt that slowly impresses itself upon Frank more than the authorities and how the film’s atmosphere – cultivated through the photography of Roman Vasyanov and the music of Keefus Ciancia and David Holmes – sets a palpable mood of heartbreak and hope.

“Hope,” as Red Redding noted in “The Shawshank Redemption”, can be “a dangerous thing”, and yet the Polsky brothers assume an opposing stance. Kris Kristofferson turns up in a bit part, in fact, enunciating in his awesomely gravelly baritone to explicitly tell Jerry that his brother needs hope. That hope is delivered in stories he tells to Frank, illustrated on screen (by Mike Smith) as if they are a graphic novel, like a couple bums in the wild west glamorizing themselves in dime store books into something they are not. This is not, however, false hope.

The film's most exemplary shot finds Jerry on the frame’s right edge, head hung, bottle in hand, but still suffused in the light from the motel window behind him. There are elements of “The Motel Life” that might elicit accusations of fetishizing the poor but while these characters endure severe conditions, often born of their own suspect decision making, the film is not subject to wallowing and has faith in transformation. The Polsky brothers use the landscape to illustrate the good all around us even in the worst of times, and rather than dissolve into an ominous cloud of fatalism that would seem to track their every move, each of the characters, in their own ways, see the light.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Jolie Dominates Expendables Battle Royale

(AP) Hollywood CA, Aug. 14 — Angelina Jolie ran roughshod over the entire gaggle of Sylvester Stallone’s so-called “Expendables” yesterday, achieving easy victory by hurling Wesley Snipes over the rope and into the orchestra pit below at a Battle Royale in the sun-strewn Hollywood Bowl.

Jolie, who had challenged Stallone’s action hero legion to the Royale after he refused to cast her on account of what he vaguley termed "scheduling conflicts" and "logistical concerns", made short work of her 13 opponents.

The ultimate tenor of the everyone-in-the-ring-and-the-last-one-standing-wins match was defined midway through when Jolie ruptured the conspicuously bulging vein of Stallone’s forearm. Until that point, “The Expendables 3” auteur had been directing ring traffic and utilizing Randy Couture as a human shield to avoid the possibility of actually having to engage in a physical fight. But when Jolie employed a Stuart Weitzman Flying Heel Kick to the ribcage of Couture, he was down and out, revealing a clear path to Stallone.

Stallone refused comment after the match.

Jason Statham declared “revenge” in the aftermath of Stallone's dismissal but Jolie thwarted his attempts with a Mrs. Smith styled drop kick. Jet Li briefly gained the upper-hand with a wily bit of flying kung-fu but Jolie simply levitated and rendered him comatose with a variation of the Famke Janssen Thigh Strangle.

That left Jolie face to face with Rhonda Rousey who had gone rogue moments earlier and punched Antonio Banderas unconscious when he tried to flirt with her. Jolie, however, used her Angelina Aura to succumb Rousey. With only Snipes remaining, Jolie was treated to her most taxing combat of the afternoon, but took advantage of a Snipes-ian one-liner to position him in her Quod Me Nutrit Me Destruit Death Grip to fling him from the arena and earn victory.

Jolie entered the ring in a duster to the sounds of Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl."

The eventual winner got a head start when Harrison Ford declared via video that he would not be attending the Battle Royale because he “didn’t understand what any of this horses*** was.” Arnold Schwarzenegger spent the first five minutes arguing with a ringside judge why he wasn’t allowed to use the gatling gun he brought at which point Jolie snuck up behind him and put him in a Blood & Honey Bear Hug.

A simple Jolie-esque smile caused Dolph Lundgren to surrender without a fight. Stallone then ordered Terry Crews to sacrifice himself for the good of the cause. Jolie easily halted his advance with telepathy, turned him upside down, and employed him as a wheelbarrow to run both he and Mel Gibson out of the ring.

Kelsey Grammer pulled a hamstring in the first thirty seconds and withdrew.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Best of Times (1986)

A different Kurt Russell movie, “Swing Shift”, was pegged for this place in my series of August Flashbacks to the Eighties. Unfortunately, the most tragic of circumstances intervened and I re-watched one of my favorite Robin Williams movies, one that happened to co-star Kurt Russell. 

Robin Williams had such a sad smile. I don’t intend to retroactively diagnose the depression that would appear to have just caused him to take his life based on the curvature of his mouth in movies because that’s wholly reductive but the fact remains that even when he found something funny on screen, or was being funny himself, it so often came with a melancholic tinge. The smile is there in films long since made and released and reviewed. He had that smile in movies I did not like – “Dead Poets Society” – and in movies I mostly did like – “Good Will Hunting.” The park bench monologue in the latter is oft-cited as a peak moment in his extensive canon, and worthily so, but I always think of the moment that triggers it – Williams (as Sean Maguire) sitting alone in his house in front of his typewriter with the curtains open and taking a glug of the drink and……smiling. It was a smile that readily acknowledged the rotten, godforsaken past but did it with a good humor. “That's the way the world works,” its droopy features said, and that was the way the world also worked in “Best of Times.” 

That’s the 1986 footballing opus from the pen of noted sports movie savant Ron Shelton (it was directed by Roger Spottiswoode) which features Williams as Jack Dundee, a banker in Taft, California, born and raised, who has never lived down a single moment in high school, dropping what would have been the winning touchdown against their arch rival Bakersfield. This depression has only compounded in adulthood because he has, as he must, gotten married to the daughter of Bakersfield’s old coach (Donald Moffat). His wife Elly (Holly Palance) is lovely and loves him, and he knows it, and when he looks at her, he seems to emit waves of guilt that he can’t let go of the guilt already plaguing him over the dropped pass. That’s two layers of guilt. He locks himself in his office and re-watches the play over and over on an old reel to reel recorder. Then he gets a cockamamie idea – why live in the rotten, godforsaken past when he can re-write it? Why not re-play the game?

Let’s not forget the guy who threw the perfect pass that Jack dropped. He’s Reno Hightower, once the best quarterback in the county, now a broken-down “van specialist” with a marriage of his own that’s on the rocks. This is also the story of his miserable past and his shot at redemption. He is played by Kurt Russell who develops an easygoing chemistry with his co-star. There is a theory that Williams muddled around as an actor for the most of the 80's, tamping down his frantic style because the movies didn't know how to harness it, until “Good Morning, Vietnam” broke the code. There's truth to this but I also think it undersells his ability to modulate. He occasionally falls into voices here (including an utterly eerie McConaughey-esque “All right, all right, all right”) but mostly plays a timidly nice man enveloped in a morose metaphorical cloud of sadness, like Charlie Brown if he'd been a wide receiver instead of a placekicker.

“Best of Times” has always been my favorite football film because it captures something essential and problematic about the sport, how its glory is fleeting yet its memories persist. John Ed Bradley, a one-time LSU Tiger, wrote an entire book exploring this idea, how he became determined not to be one of those guys who can’t let go of the past and then became one of those guys who couldn’t let go of the past. “I’ve seen them, the real sad ones,” said Myrna Fleener to Coach Norman Dale in “Hoosiers.” “They sit around the rest of their lives talking about the glory days when they were seventeen years old.” Of course, what adds the extra layer of substance to “Best of Times” is that, to Jack Dundee, there really were no glory days, no Best of Times. His dropped pass was the worst of times, and it still is. 

The film has a substantially sentimental air, yet it also – perhaps unintentionally – evinces the terrifying influence a mere sport can hold. It is not just in the main plot but in a side story set up with Williams’ opening monologue wherein the film connects the economy, the livelihood, the self-worth of Taft directly to sports, and so Taft vs. Bakersfield 2.0 becomes a way for the town as much as Jack himself to pull itself out of the doldrums. If football can hold such sway, perhaps it’s time to examine our relationship with it? And “Best of Times” almost does, if not quite.

At halftime of re-staged game, Bakersfield leading Taft by the seemingly insurmountable score of 27-0, Jack and Reno have a fairly fierce locker room tete-a-tete, and in that moment you can see the scars football leaves behind. If you everything you are is based on who you once were, as is the case with Reno, then who the hell is he? It’s an intense question and Shelton’s script, almost unbelievably, brings the film right to the precipice of answering it. Instead a comeback is spurred and Reno throws another last second pass and this time Jack catches it and Taft wins and Bakersfield loses (and only then does Jack’s father-in-law seem to respect him which……O.M.G.) because as Jay Gatsby once opined of course you can re-write the past, old sport. Of course you can. (Can’t you?)

Sports is very much about the moment. We know it’s about the moment because it’s those moments – for better or worse or much worse – that linger. I fear the revised moment will linger just as much for Jack because, seriously, having caught the pass, what now? (WHAT NOW???) So it goes. Still, on the night Robin Williams passed, it was nice to see him carried off the field, a smile on his face that for a blessed few seconds wasn't so sad.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

In Memoriam: Lauren Bacall

Only when she passed away at the age of 89 in New York from complications of a stroke on Tuesday did I realize I always assumed that Lauren Bacall was indestructible. The movie screen makes those projected onto it larger than life, and Lauren Bacall was larger than most – nay, all. Death would never become her, I figured, because, well, wasn’t she immortal?

In hindsight it seems like she arrived already ensconced in immortality, born of the Greek god of motion pictures, fully-formed and primed for stardom. Jean Harlow foundered as an extra and in the periphery of shorts for years. So did Marilyn Monroe. Bacall was all of a sudden there. Most actresses have to wait their entire careers to get a line as good as “Anybody got a match?” and that was the first one she ever spoke, and she spoke it in that unmistakably sultry voice that was so absolutely her you could imagine little Lauren Bacall on the playgrounds of The Bronx freaking out the other kids when she asked if anybody had a juicebox. She took the match, lit her cigarette, tossed it behind her with stylishly purposeful indifference, and then walked away. It’s not so much her declaration of intent to be a star as her saying “I was a star before I walked in this room.”

Of course, none of that was really her. She was born a Betty in 1924, studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, dabbled in modeling and landed a cover on Harper’s Bazaar which was where Slim Keith saw her. She was the wife of Howard Hawks, director of such classics as “His Girl Friday”and “Bringing Up Baby”. He hired Betty, changed her name to Lauren, coached her to lower the voice to the huskily lascivious levels the whole world knows so well. She has confessed to, in fact, being scared out of her mind on set, trembling with such tension that The Look – the patented Bacall facial expression that I continue to contend should actually enter the lexicon as a verb, “Bacall” – was designed as a means to help keep her wits. Head down, eyes up, mischievous but deliberate, attitudinal to the max. It’s a little like what George Clooney was always doing early in his career, but whereas his was natural, hers was intentional. There’s a reason Clooney didn’t blossom into a true blue Movie Star until he ditched that expression just as Bacall likely wouldn’t have been one if she hadn’t acquired it. They were each creating a persona.

Richard Brody once wrote, “What makes a movie star is the inability to subordinate oneself to a character—the charismatic force of personality that renders the star more fascinating than any scripted role.” While I might argue Bacall could subordinate herself to character as she aged and grew her skill set, particularly late in the game when she turned up in “Birth” and for select films of Lars von Trier, and even earlier in “Written on the Wind”, I would not term her unwillingness to subordinate herself to the character an inability so much as a power. Her singular power. In her earliest and finest films she essentially overwhelmed her roles with charismatic force. We remember them – “To Have and Have Not”, “The Big Sleep”, “Key Largo” – and we remember her in them but the specifics of who she was playing and what she was doing were often rendered immaterial once she spoke or Looked. What part could any screenwriter possibly devise to equal her persona?

At the same time, that persona might have been what prompted such an oddly erratic career. She could not only overwhelm the scripted role, she could overwhelm the film itself, as Sophie Gilbert outlined in a marvelous obituary, poetically conveying how Bacall commandeered “How To Marry A Millionaire” from the titan likes of Monroe and Betty Grable. For if the persona was an invention of voice and expression, it was also fixed in her own personality, one that off camera could be outspoken and combative. If she felt ownership of a film, she’d take it, ensemble be damned. And maybe that’s why even as grand an actor as Gregory Peck couldn’t quite stand up to her torrent of magnetism. In “Designing Women” they are opposites that attract even if they never quite seem to transform into a match. In his review for The New York Times, Bosley Crowther called her “chilly and forbidding” which seems unfair. Perhaps Gregory, all due respect, just couldn’t cut it with such an awe-inspiring dame? And that brings me to the one guy who could cut it.

In an interview with Vanity Fair in 2011, Bacall said “My obit is going to be full of Bogart, I’m sure. I’ll never know if that’s true. If that’s the way it is, that’s the way it is.”That’s the way it is, Betty, and how could it not be? They were married for twelve years, until Bogart died from cancer, had two children, and in spite of their age difference, were by all accounts – hers, his, what you see unmistakably blossoming on screen in their eyes and demeanor – was true goddam love. And although she would go on to marry Jason Robards and have his son, and although she acted in a great many movies without him, it is the pairing of Bogey & Bacall that will forever be mentioned because it is utterly indelible, existing on a plain that makes the term “chemistry” seem laughably inadequate.

If it’s not the most famous, perhaps the most telling moment of their canon is “The Big Sleep” when they are seated at a gaming table. Hawks starts the scene in a wide shot, giving us our bearings, everyone else schmoozing and bustling all around our dear Bogey & Bacall. Then the camera, suddenly, presses in on our primary couple, shoving everyone else out of the frame and leaving them alone. In their movies it was them, no one and nothing else, the whole world existing as a platform for smoldering expressions and caustic banter.

The first time I visited my best friend in New York we went to the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. One of the exhibits involved cuing up movie sequences in a sound booth and re-recording the dialogue of one character in your own voice. The “whistle” scene from “To Have and Have Not” was an option. I didn’t need to see the others. So I pitifully took the place of Bogart and for a few glorious moments I exchanged bon mots with Lauren fucking Bacall. Film is about fantasy and in my ongoing movie fandom I have never found a film more fantastical, and I’m certain I never will, because it’s a film of old Hollywood and Lauren Bacall, that roaring force of inalienable charisma, was in so many ways the last guard of its wondrous remnants, a Movie Star from an age when Movie Stars were all that equated to box office formula. And while friends know that Jean Harlow mania has gripped me in the last year and a half, it is an affliction tied directly to Lauren Bacall, my favorite Movie Star, now and forever.

In one of those eerie cosmic coincidences, she died the day after Robin Williams. This immediately and predictably led to online propagations of The Rule Of Three – stipulating that celebrity deaths come in threes. Who would be next, they wondered. I can only imagine Ms. Bacall would have rolled her eyes and offered a couple coarse words. All due respect to Mr. Williams, but slotting her into some Rule Of Three flow chart is sheer buffoonery. The title of her autobiography was “By Myself” for a reason.

Lauren Bacall stood alone.