Tuesday, December 30, 2008

When Sir Doug Met Ace Ventura

The President's Analyst (1967)
directed by Theodore J. Flicker
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Dated in spite of its endearing self-effacement, The President's Analyst is funny but wouldn't be half as funny as it is if it wasn't James Coburn waffling between paranoiac self-destruction and mad-cap slapstick. Coburn's characteristic blithe obliviousness through a healthy run of Marxist digressions - gongs might be the perfect timing gag/prop - buoys his water-off-a-duck's-back cool by never taking the full effect of that mouthful of teeth for granted. And I don't know if Hank Worden lost a bet to John Wayne at the Hollywood Athletic Club, or what, but I can't for the life of me figure out why the one-time saddle bronc rider put in so many uncredited appearances in seemingly random movies like Smokey and the Bandit long after his reputation had room to roam in Ford Country. Here he is again, this time taking LSD and pawing at the cocktail waitress while you spill your bowl of ice cream. If there's a record book for inexplicable cameos, it's a crown Elisha Cook Jr. and Old Mose wear together.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Saddle Swords and Meeting Place

A Child's Christmas in Wales (1987)
directed by Don McBrearty
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD in San Antonio

A Child's Christmas in Wales is the winter twin to James Agee's Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Dylan Thomas's yuletide prose were the sort of thing we took as a substitute for snow in South Texas - the context of a Welsh winter, with blazing pudding and elderberry wine, had no more purchase on our memories of holidays past than sleds, skates, or snowballs. But the cadence of Thomas's words on the page are familiar to the meter of our long Christmas mornings, and the stillness of electric lights on the eves of the house and limbs of the tree. Stretched to an hour, but not too thin, the 1987 PBS production is mostly illustration, but endures both as something you might remember watching as a kid, and something to watch now that you're not. Old men wake up in the middle of the night, and sleep is a boy's conclusion; "and then I slept," the movie ends, as it should.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Fatal Flaw

The Dark Knight (2008)
directed by Christopher Nolan
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Three women have speaking rolls in The Dark Knight: Bruce Wayne's dead girlfriend, a weak cop, and a helpless mother/wife. In Jack Kirby's cover for the first issue of The Fantastic Four, Reed Richards, Johnny Storm, and Ben Grimm team up to fight an adorable green monster. The best that Sue Storm (the 4th Fantastic) can offer is this call to action:

"I can't turn invisible fast enough!"

The Dark Knight is a lot like American Psycho, except that Christopher Bale, instead of comparing business cards with Wall Street good old boys, tries for "best growl" at the Gotham City Kennel Club. And wins. The movie is flush with cash, a big summer tent-pole diminished in spirit as much as size on my television screen (I admit it), but Heath Ledger is the only cast member who really rises to the absurdity of the occasion. After all this time, comic books still look ridiculous in the real world, and a purple suit or rubber cowl just doesn't belong in a city like Chicago. In movies like The Dark Knight, the city is always Chicago, or New York, and never Gotham, or Metropolis. How could it be? Dreams of the future have no purchase on now, except as a point to escape from. A nice excuse for a blockbuster, when it works.

Friday, December 12, 2008

San Rafelo, Vincent, & the Ice Cream Wagon

Criss Cross (1949)
directed by Richard Siodmak
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

This one begins just right, with Burt Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo embracing in the parking lot of her husband's club. Burt's not the husband. Siodmak - forever, in my mind, the director of Ella Raines in Phantom Lady - courts the tension of that film's train platform rendezvous with a hospital room mirror and a man smoking a cigarette late into the night on a bench in the hall. The voiceover (by Burt) plays down the trademark toothy grin for a soft conscience, and walks the camera - always by foot - from landmark to landmark in LA. Most of the conspiracies and lovers' quarrels transpire on sound stages, but process shots of midnight and morning on the Angels Flight incline outside an old apartment are evocative enough to make talk of Zuma Beach and a bar called the Dragon's Den feel like something to do when the movie's over. An easy lead-in to the women who drink in city bars in The Crimson Kimono and Barfly, although Lancaster is such a star that he crowds out his female counterparts. Mickey Rourke and James Shigeta - each cast against stronger actresses than De Carlo - do a better job sharing the frame.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Women in the Room

Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)
directed by Barbara Kopple
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Let's forget the humanitarian or historic nature of Harlan County U.S.A. for a moment and look at Kopple's remarkable achievement in strictly cinematic terms.

The opening sequence makes claustrophobia not just a symptom of tight spaces but also a kind of shadow at the flanks of industrial machinery. So many mining photographs concentrate on the sooty faces of men; there is always a stillness, as if the men were ghosts. Kopple rides into the mine on a conveyor belt, and three words follow: rain, steam, and speed - fissure's-eye views of the strength in mountains.

Later, when the striking miners form a human roadblock to keep out scabs, the unlucky recruits put their pedals to the floor and muscle a line of big-engined monsters towards the mine (the history of the stock car in miniature). On the narrow east Kentucky highway, the black skids of rubber look like second and third takes from The Last American Hero or Thunder Road. I like that directors and editors leave some mistakes in the final product to remind us that fiction is repetitive. Here, though, the tire tracks suggest something else, perhaps that Kopple's technical instinct propels an already powerful gift for empathy towards greatness.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Oh, and as long as I've got you here, tell that French DJ Tricky to move out!

Clean (2004)
directed by Olivier Assayas
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

In the best scene in Clean, a young assistant at the headquarters for a French media conglomerate tells Maggie Cheung how influential her attitude and sense of style were when the assistant was a girl in high school. Maggie and the woman (Laetitia Spigarelli) are both older now, and Assayas - as he did with Nathalie Richard in Irma Vep - projects his own early infatuation with Cheung onto Spigarelli. She's a lesbian, of course, and her compliment is as much a come-on (in spite of the fact that Cheung is clearly there to beg the assistant's boss for a job) as a star-struck close encounter.

Assayas wanted Clean to be a serious role for Maggie Cheung - meaning, I guess, that she cries. There isn't room for serious and sexual both, apparently, in spite of the fact that Assayas is well-regarded for the thematic range (artistic creation, fame, loss, etc.) of simple premises (a remake of Les Vampires). In the end, the surest way for a director to look out of touch is to make a movie about musicians. Second to a movie about musicians is a movie about addiction. But your ex-wife's character recording a demo with the woman she met in prison might take the cake.

Like any director, Assayas has his blind spots (although "comedy" is a pretty big one), but he also remembers the first time he saw Maggie Cheung in Days of Being Wild. So do I. Stick to your strengths.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Smoke from Far-Flung Castles

Dracula (1992)
directed by Francis Ford Coppola
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Time's gift to Bram Stoker's Dracula, like light from the morning sun, is a final, settled sense of effortlessness. What must have been an altogether too self-conscious artistic injunction in 1992 - a movie comprised of only in-camera effects - endures now, by night, as a unified vision of physical excess: rear-projection shots layered lovingly in threes, long wigs like seventeen muddy Carpathian rivers, breasts from here to Transylvania. Only Keanu is left in the cold, as out of place now as he always was, and never more tellingly than as the impotent bone thrown to Monica Bellucci's castle-bound vampire brides. The rest is a classic - a modern The Thief of Bagdad, and, like Douglas Fairbanks' Arabian dream, a testament to the mountains studios will happily move just to entertain you and me of an evening.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Rio Taco

Someone's Watching Me! (1978)
directed by John Carpenter
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

John Carpenter's paranoiac dislike of Los Angeles - which meets its disgruntled apotheosis in They Live more than Escape from LA - began in the anonymous concrete alleyways of TV land. Considering how remarkably life-like the Haddonfield, Illinois, of Halloween is, Lauren Hutton's apartment is closer to the Bluths' model home in Arrested Development than anything anyone could live in. Young John, no doubt proud of this sturdy TV gig, writes Hutton as a no-nonsense pragmatist forced to contend with the oversexed cads at her new job. She does it with Hawksian confidence ("I think it's only fair to warn you that I studied with Bruce Lee before he died") and just a little late-70s SoCal racism ("How about a Chicano who only reviews westerns?"). Adrienne Barbeau is the sensible modern-day lesbian at her side ("Don't worry, you're not my type"), and the two share their all-American distrust of police competency with a sensitive philosophy professor from USC. I've never heard slippery spaghetti referred to as "the Romans' revenge" before, and Carpenter's man enough to let Hutton sort out her own problems, but a stalker with a telescope just isn't as scary as something supernatural. Like Steven Spielberg on Night Gallery before him, made-for-TV can't compare to the movies.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Heart of the World

Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)
directed by Mike Leigh
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at Century 14 Downtown

From what I'd read about the relentless optimism of Happy-Go-Lucky, I expected a series of comedic vignettes in which everyday Brits become increasingly (and hilariously!) exasperated with the oblivious good humor of the movie's heroine. I knew better, but I can't believe how many critics overlooked the degree of self-awareness in Sally Hawkins' performance - in Poppy's sensitivity to the effect she has on others, in the measured best face she tries to put forward, and in knowing when to call it a day with people like Scott. Characters are drawn to Poppy, not repelled by her. She's an inspiration.

My problem with optimism is that it seems like shorthand for faith, which is, I think, an unwillingness to see the world as it is (because in some vague, indefinite future, it's going to get "better"). Real, everyday kindness is a rarer quality. Kindness, not faith, confers forgiveness, sympathy, and understanding. Kindness makes us better people. Leigh plays it straight down the line - in beautiful 2.35:1 - and the late-night empty-theater screening melts right into a colorful London dawn.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Prelude to a Kiss

The Inglorious Bastards (1978)
directed by Enzo G. Castellari
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

With 45 minutes left, The Inglorious Bastards breaks from the summer camp school of zip lines out of SS officers' windows to a bona-fide slow motion action epic. Trains are great sets for organized chaos - cabin claustrophobia competes against the open country on either side of the tracks - and train films inspire a kind of cinematic locomotive bender in me. But if Burt Lancaster is holding steady at #3 in the queue, I can't very well re-board the always ahead-of-schedule Frankenheimer Express without first giving Castellari his due.

Dave Kehr doesn't think that Tarantino can retain the low-key verve of Bo Svenson's mid-western/Swedish cross-stitch, but isn't that Bo at the Massacre at Two Pines? If Quentin wants "childlike playfulness," he'll get it, but I imagine it's more of a spectacle he's after: blood, guts, and Maggie Cheung inside Nazi-occupied Paris. Still nonchalant, but more consistent; Castellari's frat-pack laughs are easy right up to the point where everyone gets serious about the mission, and then it's gimlet-eyed grimaces and grave goodbyes. A first half for June, a second for December.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Der Märchenkönig and His Kingdoms by the Sea

Encounters at the End of the World (2007)
directed by Werner Herzog
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

I think Werner Herzog is too often mistaken for a contrarian, or worse, a misanthrope. But his narrative interjection over the story of a woman who clearly relishes recounting her tales of South American hitchhiking - "Her story goes on forever" - is really just impatience for people who overextend their wanderlust and inflate the things they've witnessed into some convoluted assessment of themselves. It is easy to see why the director is drawn to documentaries, but also why he is disappointed at the wind-blown emptiness that must follow each one of Encounter's self-described dreamers to bed.

Half the time, it seems, men and women go to places like McMurdo because they don't know what else to do. There is much to admire even in that, but fiction must sit at Herzog's shoulders, beckoning him back to the chance to make it better. After all, Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald achieves his dream; he gets Caruso. Kinski's smile in the Iquito swamps is nothing if not genuine. And Fitzcarraldo is a much better movie than Burden of Dreams.