Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A-Haunting We Will Go

The Omega Man (1971)
directed by Boris Sagal
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

"Is this how it starts? A trip to the laughing academy? No, you silly bastard. It starts with you asking yourself idiot questions. Right. Right. Okay. Let's get cleaned up and find a drink before the bars close."

This being Chuck Heston, of course, that line is delivered out of breath and sweaty, with Ramon Miguel "Mike" Vargas rubbing his bare chest (which he's just poured perfume on after a visit to an empty department store) on a Los Angeles park bench. Charlton Heston is amazing; whether or not the story of him reading I Am Legend on a flight back to Hollywood and demanding an adaptation is true, John Carpenter knew it, the director of Wayne's World 2 knew it, and everyone from Cecil B. DeMille to Orson Welles knew it.

What's endearing about Charlton is how pro-active he was in getting so many of the roles he's remembered for made. The Omega Man isn't a masterpiece, but it's nicely derivative of The Last Man on Earth without aping it. TV director Boris Sagal gets some impact from an empty downtown LA, but he also understands that vacant streets aren't as scary in a post-apocalyptic world as small rooms which should be empty, but aren't. And Heston's leading lady is a black woman; honestly, when was the last time that happened at the multiplex?

Happy Halloween, everyone. If you need a last-minute costume, go as a great American.

Charlton Heston, James Baldwin, Sidney Poitier, Marlon Brando, and Harry Belafonte at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington. What a world.

Friday, October 26, 2007

A Door in the Wall

Poltergeist (1982)
directed by let's call it a tie
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Of the many apologies I've made to movies - the misunderstandings and thoughtless dismissals - I'm happy to return to the fold of the funhouse genre, aka the soundstage slap in the face of the fresh-aired neo-realists. Temple of Doom, The Mask of Fu Manchu, Big Trouble in Little China: once the artifice is a term of the story, and the director tips his hand, watching is as much an appreciation and awareness of craft as trying the brakes on a new bicycle. The premise of Poltergeist is rock solid: a new subdivision is built on top of a frontier graveyard! The small nightmares kids fear - drains, closets, swimming pools, trees - begin to come true, but it's the moment when adults regress into their childhood memories that makes those nightmares scary. Compounding the fear instinct, Craig T. Nelson and his lovely wife Diane have children to look out for; even if we don't, we worry for the beautifully executed (those eighties effects age so well) unknowns at the door.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Cary Grant's Eventual Daydream

She (1935)
directed by Lansing C. Holden & Irving Pichel
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

If King Kong harnessed the rage of the suffering heart, what of words through the centuries? Books so countless that the library of Alexandria could burn to ash and no one know what he missed? Kong's clear expression is a kind of thoughtfulness, but what of the woman doomed to live with the memory of her great love, and then to relinquish him again, by choice, when he returns to her years later? Couldn't she, unlike Kong, say what was on her mind? Couldn't the movies find some trick to back her up, some spell of wind and light? And what if she lived in a world apart, somewhere north in the arctic circle, important for its isolation, but also for the great adventure required to get there?

Monday, October 22, 2007

I Am a Mouth of Moss

Under the Volcano (1984)
directed by John Huston
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from the vaults

To see Welles recite Moby-Dick by the cabin-dim light of a homemade recording in Los Angeles (in the 1995 documentary Orson Welles: One-Man Band) is to realize that no novel cannot be adapted to the screen. Under the Volcano is no exception. In Huston’s hands, the bars of Cuernevaca wear gorgeous, bright posters where Lorre’s bald head, staring hideously at his fated, murderous creation, illumines a space that is never as terrible, or as sad, as the narrative of heartbreak and death it frames should, by all accounts, be. The director’s loosest interpretation of the source material is his decision to make Yvonne privy to Geoff’s awful fate, and then to have her share it, dead on a rainy road running towards him. One likes that the novel ends as it does, but Huston, knowing Lowry’s unhappy expiration, saw love differently. No less torturous, but a straighter way to the heart of the matter. In place of a book about so many things, Huston made a film about three people and a place. The acting, of course, is very good, but it’s more to Mexico’s credit (Mexico that sustained Huston and Lowry both through good years of sacrifice) that the landscape can accommodate all of them, and that hours in their company end, in spite of such desolate machinations, more warmly than forlorn.

More here.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Same Pencil-Thin Moustache

The Last Man on Earth (1964)
directed by Sidney Salkow
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Price does in fact "play it straight" here (leave it to the Italians to domesticate the heir to the National Candy Company), except for his conclusive skit as Christ on the cross. The influence of The Last Man on Night of the Living Dead should be enough to bronze the film negative; what frontier stretches further in the mind than the horror genre's capacity for innovation? Nevermind Antonioni's modern malaises, as Vincent appropriates the set of L'Eclisse with twice Alain Delon's sense of injustice. No one like Monica Vitti, but with the last man in a Cadillac, who needs her?

Monday, October 15, 2007

James Franco at the Five & Dime

Freaks and Geeks (1999)
created by Judd Apatow & Paul Feig
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from As Seen On TV

Like most fans, I appreciate the absence of adults in Peanuts. Whatever the fuss about Charles Schulz, his comic strip is melancholy. Kids clarify the contradictions in man with an unconscious introspection the insecurities of adults obscure. Fine. But that means that Peanuts isn't really about kids.

Freaks and Geeks, like The 400 Blows, Home Movies, or the fourth season of The Wire, is. Their parents make bad decisions, often with good intentions, but good or bad, adult figures frame these teenagers' lives. The teenagers share the camaraderie of competing against expectations at an age when excitement is the baseline emotion.

A fiction about kids is maybe the toughest script to write, but Freaks and Geeks did it with grace, sweetness, and charm. And unlike a lot of shows, it had the perfect run: a year in the life of high school friends, and even longer than that to them. To paraphrase someone else, what else does sixteen give you?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

A Good Week in October

The Innocents (1961)
directed by Jack Clayton
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

That cinematographer Freddie Francis is always mentioned in anyone's recommendation of The Innocents suggests the uncommon case of the visual experience trumping narrative prerogatives. It isn't. Francis' spell limns the purgatory of a phantasmagorical Beyond to such a degree that the ear, in The Innocents' most arresting moments, strains to discern some sound in the silence. The visual sense alone is not sufficient; in its way, the strain is a storybook kind, where you return to the world by the break in your screams. So the horror in Deborah Kerr's eyes assumes its own invasive proportions, no longer reflective, but ravenous and rooting. The Innocents is an adaptation, but one free of every trapping fear except the most elemental: isolation, nightfall, rain, and the point just beyond believing the awfulness the eye reveals. Haunting and beautiful.

Rooms used by daylight as if they were dark woods.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Wake of the Elizabeth Dane

The Fog (1980)
directed by John Carpenter
rating: 5 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from the vaults

Two stories are told by the fishermen of Antonio Bay. In the first, a ghost ship appears one night at sea. A man from the township finds a gold Spanish coin. The man keeps the coin, but his pockets are empty when he returns home.

The second concerns a campfire. The old sailor scares local children with a tale of a boat lost in fog, then run aground, with every hand dead, by a fire on Spivey Point that the crew mistakes for a signal. Both stories are true, but they are incomplete. Each omits the intentional complicity of its protagonists.

Instead of lighting the campfire to murder a leper colony, the beachcombers are innocent stargazers. The gold coin was found by Nick Castle's father, who was old enough to know the ghost stories of Whitley Reef, to surmise the moods of the California coastline, if not the buried plot's dread details. But the innocent and guilty alike pay penance. That makes The Fog a story of the sea, one as dolorous and salt-soaked as the most beautiful winter gale.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Wicked Season

Witchfinder General (1968)
directed by Michael Reeves
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

No fan of Christopher Lee would begrudge his legacy a few more Hammer pennies for budgeting a little atmosphere. Unlike Lee, Vincent Price never outclassed the garish midnight movies that delighted in the low-budget ostentation they used to dress their star. Price's performances were every inch the spectacle his movies exuded, tethered to the high register of a voice that cooed a deeply fetishized nasal drawl.

He was better served by his later years, when age combed his face like a match and candle, until the swishy gigolo from Laura was all but unrecognizable beneath the ashen demeanor of Witchfinder Matthew Hopkins. The film is a delight, of course, but like so much of Price's output, grounded less in horror than the rudimentary indifference of psychological terror. Witchfinder General twists the knife of neighbors' damning sympathies, suspicious only to be cruel, and dispatches human gravitas with ghastly vindication.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Call Letters from Home

Border Radio (1987)
directed by Allison Anders, Dean Lent, & Kurt Voss
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Border Radio begins like a low-budget crime caper, and ten minutes were enough for me to decide to do something else that morning. I began again another day with the expectation of just getting through. Time is all Border Radio needs. A true ensemble picture, it revels in its ever-widening circle of musician cast members, who come and go with an amateur's uneasiness diffused by a comfort in the familiar: the clubs they play, the houses where they live, the people they see on Friday nights. Instead of crowding the threadbare narrative, the cast hangs on the line like Sunday on a fishing pole.

The four years it took three directors to complete Border Radio ratchet down the opening rush to studies of ambient sounds in Echo Park, the cadence and faces of conversations, and the refraction of light on surf, on sand, on the white walls of cozy LA bungalows. At some point, Anders, Lent, and Voss became more interested in their own milieu than the movie. They sacrificed a better film, but instead of a bargain basement rental, Border Radio became exactly what it was: friends and a life they were proud of - enough to share - and something special in ways only the unconsciously personal can be.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

A Pastoral (4)

Les Nuits de la pleine lune (1984)
directed by Eric Rohmer
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

In one of the most sublime shots in Rohmerdom, Louise and Octave sit talking in an anonymous café near Notre Dame. It is January, and their conversational demeanor suggests the perfect temperature indoors. Louise loves Rémi, who lives in Marne, an unattractive Paris suburb. She keeps a pied-à-terre in the city, and goes to parties on nights when Rémi prefers to stay in.

"To love someone deeply," she says, "I have to love him from afar now and then."

"If you loved me as I love you," Rémi retorts, "we'd be married by now."

"And divorced!" says Louise.

Time proves her right. She cheats on Rémi on the night of a full moon, decides honestly that it was the wrong decision, and returns to Marne to discover that Rémi is in love with another woman. The proverb implies she had it coming, but Rohmer creates in her character an idealist ill-prepared for the all-too practical humanity that surrounds her. It isn't a pithy French justification for one-night affairs (Octave, the ladies man, is without a doubt the film's fool), but rather, sympathy for an innocence that doesn't need to imply immaturity.

At the café, Louise stands up to use the restroom. As she rises, the camera slides back and away, like a chair pulled out from the table. Louise walks to the front of the restaurant, where people gather and faces pass through the lights outside. She steps out into the world; it is lovely, but still the world, and minutes later she finds the first sign that Rémi is untrue.

Home Run Reds

La Chinoise (1967)
directed by Jean-Luc Godard
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Film Forum

For those of us who still think of Jean-Pierre Léaud as we first saw him, on library shelves in films directed by François Truffaut, La Chinoise is a gentle appeal. Without Jean-Luc Godard, would Olivier Assayas have still cast Léaud to drink from a comically oversized three-liter Coke bottle in Irma Vep? Would Tsai Ming-liang, his love for The 400 Blows intact, insist on Léaud’s large overcoat in What Time Is It There?, or on the physical gesture of a phone number passed on a piece of paper?

Léaud, with his easy exasperations, reacts. He asserts his nervousness instead of hiding it; his hands indicate an ongoing, unguarded surprise with his own disruptive emotions. Truffaut increasingly scaled the performances back, but Godard, like Luc Moullet with A Girl Is a Gun, egged Léaud on. With each new season, an old Godard film makes it back into circulation. La Chinoise should be ubiquitous. It anticipates not just the student riots in 1968 Paris but also the greatest in DVD supplements, the archived audition.

More here.