Friday, December 28, 2007

Toughest Gaze in the MasterBlaster Maze

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)
directed by Chia-Liang Liu
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The Weinsteins should be proud of their new Shaw Brothers transfers; I'm sure Quentin is. A better transfer means blood like a neon light and shaolin robes shining down on Manchurians run amok through the shrines and streets of the Central Kingdom. Kung-fu films are tough on the spirit of the Netflix shuffle - trying on the patience if you're not in the mood - but that mostly means asking to be won over. Steady as the steam from a tea kettle (unless you leave it on the stove too long like I did the other day), training sequence upon training sequence accumulated each small, then sum, success, almost as engrossing as the near-silent theater duel at the end of Scaramouche that I stumbled upon on TCM (it's nice to be home for the holidays).

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Dirty Jerry Crazy Larry

Curb Your Enthusiasm, Season 6
story by Larry David
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Stealth

As I prepared to anoint six as "the best season yet," I thought back to those first few, and remembered (at least in my mind) a more shambling, less rambunctious life for Larry. It was more often a smaller misstep, and fewer missteps per episode, which meant more time for Larry and Jeff to just walk around (a cemetery, a birthday party) and more shrugs of the shoulder instead of escalating, shouting outrages. Cheryl was always a sentimentalist, and always - I thought - more full of herself than Larry (it's hard, for example, to think of Larry suggesting that they renew their wedding vows). What I've always liked about Curb Your Enthusiasm is how unlike Seinfeld it was - how Larry, unlike Jerry, was a good guy, thoughtful and considerate and never a bullshitter. So season 6 ends in probably the best place the show could end (which is to say the most sincere), and it ends where great scenes always end: with dancing.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Top Ten

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
directed by Frank Capra
rating: 5 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from the vaults

The voice of the "senior angel" - or "Franklin," I think, somewhere - who might, by way of the courtesies that Joseph and Clarence extend him, be God himself, was that of Moroni Olsen - the Magic Mirror in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walter Beardsley in Notorious, and a grim, worrisome man through two decades of film. The angels have a mean streak, and life is not fair. Do movies get more raw than kid George Bailey's bloody ear in the back room of the pharmacy, or big George Bailey dressing down his children on Christmas Eve? Does loneliness get worse than the squirrel on Uncle Billy's shoulder? Even Mary's broken-window wish is the curse that keeps her husband from ever leaving Bedford Falls; isn't it cruel that her dreams should carry more weight than those of the one idealist among them?

"I've been doing a great deal of thinking, and what I've come to is this: amid all the bangs and the drama and the grand passions, it's kindness and just ordinary goodness that stands out in the end."

But aren't George and Mary passionate, too? Is there anywhere a more romantic rain-lit serenade? Ah, but this one has it all!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Ron Appétit

Captain Ron (1992)
directed by Thom Eberhardt
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

When the idea of a one-eyed captain is so funny that the joke extends to the cars he drives missing a headlight on the same side, everyone graduates from "cashing a paycheck" to "doing their job." Work makes Kurt Russell funny and Martin Short sympathetic, just like Captain Ron himself. It's unclear how much Captain Ron knows about boats and sails - his slip-ups suggest he's bluffing - but his commitment to the part is sincere enough to muscle him through. On the one hand, Jimmy Buffett is a multi-millionaire who flies planes and pilots boats and rubs it in everyone's faces; then there's Ron, who is well and truly interested in just passing the time. To Ron (and probably Kurt), the word "lifestyle" wouldn't mean a thing.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Lost in the Backlot

Harvey (1950)
directed by Henry Koster
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD with ELO

No one was more surprised than I when The Philadelphia Story finally felt more like a play than a movie. If John Huston's relentless adaptations of famous novels never transcended their sources (and yes, I was too enthusiastic about Fat City), they at least felt like more than someone pulling a camera over an open book. The passage from Broadway to Hollywood was a well-trod road in the studio era, but even the most nimble travelers (like The Philadelphia Story) wore their staginess like dirty overcoats. A movie like Harvey can be oh so beautifully written, and acted like a gift for Gentleman Jim, but still the sort of prestige picture that Universal paid a million dollars to film in 1950. If Stewart wished he'd lent less innocence to Elwood P. Dowd, he's right (Harvey, if anything, is a Joseph Mitchell hard-luck hero), but still one wonders if even Mitchell could top Jim saying such sweet things about the rooms where people gather so as not to be alone.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)
directed by Chuck Jones
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD with ELO

Obviously if I didn't remember that Boris Karloff was both narrator and Voice of Grinch, it had been far too long since my last watch. And do you know what makes TV so great? Brevity. Not even half an hour, and still a heart ten sizes too big for the medium. You could launch the next space shuttle from Chuck Jones' sense of timing, which - like Fairbanks' - was probably impeccable even at death.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Shadow of a Flying Carpet in Passing

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
directed by Raoul Walsh
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD with ELO

For every languid, dream-like Days of Being Wild, a thousand pretenders to the throne steal about in tricks of atmosphere and shorthands of forgotten memories. But happiness must be earned, says the man who stirs his steaming pot of food like the slow revolution of centuries, in a movie that begins somewhere between Algernon Blackwood's Sand and The Fog's "one more story before twelve" - although Thief begins fearlessly, where horror is burnished like wonder. I've never read The Arabian Nights, and to the degree that it exists in my consciousness, it is as a wholly fabricated exoticism. This is the film one makes with minarets and desert stars in mind; Fairbanks last words were reportedly, "I've never felt better!," truly a great man's epitaph.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
directed by Bill Melendez
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD with ELO

The sound design is something else in these Peanuts specials: the snow-shoe shuffle of Pig-Pen's gathering dust, the intake of breath before the kids start singing, how silence is used as the metronome to pace half an hour by. When people talk about translating comics to the screen, no one ever mentions that the reading experience is soundless. However you imagine a character speaking, or the ambient greetings in the neighborhood where Charlie Brown lives, you read in a space that is quiet or loud, per your usual habits. When I read, I can hear the filament in the lightbulb, the passing cars on the road outside, and the noise my dog makes when he changes positions or moves from one room to another. It's how I think of snowfall, actually - as nature staying in - and why Christmas is Schulz's and his hero's season.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Beginner's Luck

Hollywood or Bust (1956)
directed by Frank Tashlin
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

So yes, a dog behind the wheel of a car is always funny. It's funny when Boone is in the driver's seat when I come back from Kroger, and it's funny when Mr. Bascomb (a Great Dane) takes Dean Martin's convertible for a loop around the haystacks. Dean's exasperation (with Jerry, with the dog, with playing the straight man when he should be at the Sands) is more background than undercurrent, and whatever effort Tashlin exerted keeping his stars in line feels effortless in hand with the easy breezy Americana that signposts the duo's drive west to LA.

Anita Ekberg plays herself, which is the only role I've ever seen her in (did I miss the part that made her the Definitive American Movie Star, en route to typecasting?), but it can't be an America of Ekbergs only - not if it's the country of Tashlin's VistaVision, never-a-gray-day dreams (never Out West, anyway) - so the long road of gold is armed to the teeth with pretty girls singing in regional attire: gingham and denim bikinis in the mid-west, buckskin-and-fringe miniskirts on the rez. Ian Frazier probably has something to say about cuckolded Chief Running Water (ditto for the "tribute" to the Chinese moviegoer), but who's better for the fall guy than Dino? Blame him, love him, let him croon you to the moon with that sweet and happy Mr. B. - surely the reason, more than the century's joke about France and Jerry Lewis, that Jean-Luc & François loved it so.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Speed Inside My Shoe

I, Madman (1989)
directed by Tibor Takács
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The first half of this movie is a fantasy for boys and girls both: for egghead boys, the idea that Mae from Near Dark works in a bookstore in the San Fernando Valley and stays at home at night reading scary books in her rain-swept apartment; for nerdy girls, the suggestion that they could be Virginia, be fashion-minded and smart and pretty, with a good guy who can't wait to get home to that cozy, well-appointed loft to see them. By interpolating the fiction on the page into the fiction on film (watching Jenny Wright play dress-up, essentially, with better-appointed 40s digs), Madman evokes the first-edition bit from The Big Sleep but still makes it scary. Like In the Mouth of Madness on a more romantic scale, and without Cthulhu's evil empire!

The second half retains none of the first half's charm, mystery, or appeal. I watched this over two nights by accident, and it might as well have been two different movies. And there are, sadly, already far too many examples of failure.