Saturday, January 31, 2009

Colors Inside the Mountains

Come Drink With Me (1966)
directed by King Hu
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

With all the money the Weinsteins spent revamping the prints for their Dragon Dynasty series, there must not have been much left over for subtitles. Unless the action is supposed to speak for itself, in which case... it doesn't. For one thing, I could never tell who thought the woman was really a man, who knew the truth, and at what point everyone else caught on. Maybe: no one, everyone, and from the beginning. Maybe not. The oddest thing about Pei-Pei Cheng's famous role as Golden Swallow, the warrior daughter of a feudal island's provincial governor, is the plot's deferral to the story of Hua Yueh's Drunken Cat in the last half hour. Drunken Cat is not who he seems, but only because every town likes its singing drunk and doesn't bother to dig too far. Somehow his conflict with a corrupt monk supersedes Golden Swallow's vengeance (and her mission), but not before King Hu makes more than adequate use of a fog machine, the time of day, and Hong Kong's green, green hills.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Introducing the Miracle

Le Petit soldat (1963)
directed by Jean-Luc Godard
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The novelty of the first collaboration between two people I love as much as Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina can overcome a lot of lackadaisical plotting, half-baked political apathy, and too little background noise in the dubbed soundtrack. When Bruno (Michel Subor) asks what color her eyes are, and finally settles on "Velázquez-gray" because of the shadows that line them, I couldn't remember if Anna Karina's eyes were blue, or brown, or what. In the movie, they're gray; or, as Godard once said, "It's not blood, it's red."

Bruno's first goodbye is shot almost like a salute, a comparison I didn't make until the cut that follows, when Veronica brings a cigarette to her lips and it looks just like she's blowing a kiss. "They love to play games like little girls," Bruno says about women. "So you suggest playing children's games." But it's Bruno who falls in love, after he bets his friend Hugh that he won't.

"Veronica, shake your hair loose," he asks. She does.

Then, to Bruno: "Here's your fifty dollars."

There's more to it - something about the Algerian war and the loyalties of the disenchanted - but after Veronica dances around her apartment to Mozart (or earlier, when we see her for the very first time), politics are a sad shuffle.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

I Danced with a Gal with a Hole in Her Stocking

Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)
directed by John Patrick Shanley
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Bert, to Ernie: "Liver pills? We need posters of beautiful places, romantic places. Places George wants to go!"

Waponi Chief: "We are the children of children and we live as we are shown."

I have always imagined that John Patrick Shanley - who loves the full moon so much that he filled the sky with it, and then raised it again for his directorial debut - likes the little sketch that Mary Bailey draws for George, her husband-to-be. Joe is a kind of lunatic Jim Stewart, and the trunks Joe buys from a luggage salesman are the totems of George Bailey's dream life. Once opened, they take George away from Bedford Falls and onto the great wide sea of adventure.

Stanley asked Georges Delerue, who wrote the music for Jules and Jim, to score Joe Versus the Volcano. That, I think, is the clue to the recurring joke about Meg Ryan - in her three roles as DeDe, Angelica, and Patricia - "reminding" Joe of someone. We remember every face we've seen and been close to, and always we remember them best in the countenances of people we love.

It's all cyclical, and one of the reasons I like Lindsay Lohan is that I can see her saying Patricia's lines on Joe's first night aboard the Tweedle Dee. Someone just has to write them for her!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Cashed, Not Framed

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
directed by Mervyn LeRoy
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

In the pre-Code early thirties, even the hammy Irish detective is an out-of-work Broadway fake. Everyone owes rent, and those that don't - blue-blood Boston heirs - fall in love with the girls who work between 42nd and 53rd. The Depression went easiest, I'd imagine, when the women outnumbered the men by at least two to one; that's the Gold Diggers golden ratio when no one's dancing. Madman Busby Berkley jukes the stats to a roomful of twirling beauties in high heels and sequins, none of them lovelier or funnier than Joan Blondell.

The next time someone tells you the story about the thunderstorm, cinematographer Winton Hoch, and director John Ford on the set of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, show them this. The sky was dark in Monument Valley that day, and aperture wasn't what it is now. But no electrical display over Elephant Butte is half the accomplishment of lighting Ruby Keeler's face by the neon on a violin's bow. Any softer and it couldn't be real, and what's a cavalry beside a pretty girl?

Friday, January 23, 2009

Aloysius in Fingerless Leather Gloves

Lagerfeld Confidential (2007)
directed by Rodolphe Marconi
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Karl Lagerfeld, by his own volition, is the man you see in Vogue in a snapshot from his Chanel runway show; unless in some private moments that The Beautiful Fall only alludes to and certainly Lagerfeld himself never talks about, the designer is as real as the stuffed teddy bear made in his image for charity. Lagerfeld is photographed with Mary-Kate Olsen, who adores him, or with people I do not recognize who have names for themselves in fashion. He wears high, disposable paper collars and fistfuls of pewter-colored rings. When he is asked for a quote, he does his best to entertain. Lagerfeld Confidential is the underwhelming big autumn issue of Lagerfeld vignettes, anecdotes, and poses, with private jets and private suites and nothing a fan (I am a fan) can't skim. The snapshot is all you really need, and all he really wants you to know.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Boy's Tale

A Knight's Tale (2001)
directed by Brian Helgeland
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Helgeland never meets his outrageous premise - that arena rock contextualizes the thrill of medieval public spectacles for a modern audience - more than half way, as if he realized that good stunts sell themselves, and an original score by the Coens' resident composer is cheaper than licensing Queen. The thirteen year-olds in the theater didn't mind, because the screenwriter of Blood Work and Mystic River wrote a fantasy just for them, in which a group of friends talks about girls, laughs at the bullies behind their backs, and worries about when they're going to get home. What's more contextual than a lady-in-waiting as the friend of the girl you like working as the go-between to figure out a first, awkward date? Anyway, it's a lot more modern than her lady's mercurial wigs. The rest is entertaining, funny, smart, and just romantic enough to maybe inspire a kiss at the door before the car goes back to mom and dad.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

All the Detectives Dress Up for Each Other

Blade Runner (1982)
directed by Ridley Scott
rating: 5 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

David Peoples' revisions pared down the source novel's sci-fi paranoia for a clean story about loneliness: Voight-Kampff questions on childhood and mothers; men playing chess over the phone; noodle stands and strip clubs. Scott cleaned up the title by buying the rights to the name from William Burroughs, and scoured the ominous Los Angeles skyline that opens the film for a narrow run of streets and alleyways where Deckard buys his food. The set's familiarity is more like a city block from Barfly than anything in Alien.

Like Barfly, each location is a place to be alone. Roy Batty and Pris are the only two characters who confront situations together. Even the cops work without partners. Instead of sidling up to his regular stool for his regular bowl of pho, Deckard waits for a seat to open from a perch half out of the rain. Waiting becomes part of the pace of the film, and it culminates in Deckard's confrontation with Batty, with the audience on the line while Batty, time running out, waits to die.

All that waiting distracts us from the threat of the film: that happiness, once found, can't last. Edward James Olmos, with all of Admiral Adama's weight on his ivory-handled cane, gets Peoples' best line from across a rotting rooftop. "It's too bad she won't live," he shouts, "but then again, who does?" Deckard takes it as a warning, and runs. But it isn't. Just a fact, an inevitability, like the end of a movie.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Stuntmen's Ball

Hooper (1978)
directed by Hal Needham
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

If you've ever wanted to see Burt Reynolds' Gregory Peck impression, James Best's best Jimmy Stewart, or Robert Klein's Peter Bogdanovich, start here. Percocet, Xylocaine, and Demoral all make appearances by name; the horse drinks beer; everyone else drinks anything. Charles Bronson's fans in the Philippines and Burt's in Waycross, Georgia, might be the only two demographics in the world who like their heroes' movies pan-and-scanned, but the stunts the crew shows up to honor survive with their dignity intact. The Death Proof of its day (Vanessa Ferlito inherited Sally Field's short-shorts), as much for its characters' camaraderie as a love for the men who drive the cars.

But back to the Bogdanovich parody, in case you don't get around to Hooper yourself:

Robert Klein (as Roger Deal): "I know we didn't get along on this picture. I also know you think I'm a tyrannical egomaniac. Well, maybe it's true. But films are tiny pieces of time, and we captured it. I only do it for one reason: to make the best movie I can. Because I'm a pro, just like you. I'm also big enough to apologize, and I know you're big enough to accept."

Burt Reynolds (as Sonny Hooper): "Roger, as usual, you're wrong."

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Cut the Dust

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)
directed by Sam Peckinpah
rating: 5 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from the vaults

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

"At one point, Peckinpah even posed for a joke photograph that he sent to the Hollywood Reporter, showing him lying on a hospital gurney while receiving a bottle of whiskey through an intravenous drip."

from a TCM Spotlight article by Paul Tatara

Before Christmas, I watched It’s a Wonderful Life with Elizabeth, but I was too lazy to write much about it. On the drive to Texas for the holidays, I passed the turnoff to Fort Sumner heading south on 285 in eastern New Mexico. There was snow on the ground, dry as the plains. Syl and I have shared so many conversations about Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid that anything I can say is inextricable from our mutual revelations. That’s part of the appeal, of course, in much the same way that It’s a Wonderful Life means so much to other people I care about (and to me).

The above photo is a clue to Pat Garrett’s reputation as a “problem” film; few critics embrace it completely, and most writers dwell on particular aspects of the production while dismissing its idiosyncrasies out of hand. But to love the movie is to love both Bob Dylan’s turn as Alias and his carefree soundtrack, which keeps the youthful friendship the narrative is built on at the forefront of Peckinpah’s elegy. Rudy Wurlitzer’s script (and there is nothing else like it in movies) is a roll call of names and stories used as currency to keep adulthood at bay. The longer characters live, the more that list sounds like a charm against the inevitable inauspicious death that awaits them all.

I spend so much time talking about actresses that you’d assume my favorite performance was Anna Karina’s first screen test, but it’s James Coburn as Pat Garrett, and probably always will be. No one else would have played Lincoln’s famous marshal with equal parts amusement, confidence, and patience. No one else could make so sad a role so funny or so warm. Billy’s gang isn’t just afraid of Garrett; they like him and remember that they used to like him even more, before he changed with the times. Pat wears a serape when he rides to Fort Sumner to warn Billy about his impending arrest, and ever after a black suit – the only adult in the room.

It’s a Wonderful Life has attracted some of the worst criticism in the genre of film theory. At the end of 2008, The New York Times couldn’t help but drag out the old horse just to kick it in the shins one more time: "Maybe that’s what turned my dad off, that or the saccharine title." Watching It’s a Wonderful Life again this year, I loved it more than ever. Yes, it makes disappointments universal, and in doing so democratizes the unhappiness that we all feel. But the worst night of George Bailey’s life takes place mere hours before the closing credits; the angel’s revelation of George’s impact on the lives of so many of Bedford Fall’s citizens saves him, but surely a sense of futility will return from time to time.

Once you watch the movie twice, the early, innocent remarks of kids and teenagers flush with love contain the fates you now foresee. “I’ll love you until the day I die,” young Mary whispers to soda jerk George. It is a sweet remark, and strong. Beside her on a stool, Violet asks what’s wrong with liking all the boys. We laugh, but the film’s magnanimous answer is: nothing at all. Even in the alternate universe of Pottersville, Violet is just as appealing, and just as taken aback by George’s crazy moonlight schemes.

One of the best scenes in It’s a Wonderful Life is when George gives Violet money to start again in another town. The act is more than a charitable loan – more than the embodiment of the family “penny-ante” S & L that George inherits. The scene implies that George and Violet see each other all the time; they keep in touch because George understands something about Violet, which is that Bedford Falls is just too small a place. George himself doesn’t make a life there so much as make the best of one, but Violet is never punished by the screenplay or director Frank Capra. She isn’t reduced or embarrassed, or made small. Who would we have her be? The wife of Sam Wainwright, the braying donkey? No, Violet is simply, like George, misunderstood by people who, more often than not, look after themselves first.

The title is It’s a Wonderful Life, and it is meant without rancor or cynicism. We believe it because George, long subjected to the innate, helpless selfishness of the kindest people in the world, can – in rare moments – come up for air. Bedford Falls is a lonely place, but the Baileys still christen each home in Bailey Park with bread, salt, and a bottle of wine, so that the lives lived out there will never know hunger and be filled with joy.

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is the end of that, but with more good times along the way. Mostly, I equate the two films because they are movies through and through. With each Jewel Robbery or Design for Living, I wonder if art could possibly be better, and sometimes think it could not. But those movies were plays first, and retain something stagnant from the stage. My two favorite films are broader than that: less dominated by the personalities of their directors than earlier and later projects, subtler in their cinematographers’ schemes, freer with words and mistakes, shouldered by actors completely in step with the most sympathetic readings of their characters. And some of the best music, to boot, whether "Turkey Chase" or “Auld Lang Syne.”

From the photograph of Sam Peckinpah taking whiskey from an intravenous feed, you’d think the Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid shoot was a lark. The point is that the crew made it seem like one. I am occasionally asked why I like movies so much. I like them most when I watch them with friends. There’s no gallery like a sofa, no book like a title sequence, and no title sequence like Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid's.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Headlights, Windshield, Rearview Mirror

They Live By Night (1948)
directed by Nicholas Ray
rating: 5 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

If Nicholas Ray were divested of his helicopter and his supporting cast, he could still film the transformation of Cathy O'Donnell's face from a carapace of suspicion and rural fatigue to a "yes" full of promise for every kind question. Does she love him? Can they marry? Will she go away tonight? Farley Granger, the tennis handsome of Strangers on a Train, falls for her as convincingly as we do, and together they move through a country alive at the absence of peering, inconsiderate eyes. Any one of a half dozen twilight denizens the young lovers encounter could bleed off the screen and wait for your fitful slumber to come creeping; they hurry the couple like ghosts to some hidden glade or dale. Homegrown poetic realism for high ocean tides, cold nights, and a full January moon.

This boy... and this girl...

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Fourth of July in a Screwball Summer

Easy Living (1937)
directed by Mitchell Leisen
rating: 5 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The rigorous daily pace of a domineering Wall Street investor catches a young Jean Arthur unawares on her way to work at a magazine for boys. But the cyclone effect - furs, fine meals, hotel penthouses - doesn't envelope Ms. Arthur so much as loft her higher and higher. She settles in among the clouds, committed to enjoying in full the pampering of each soft, sun-warmed breeze. Comeuppances against his favorite characters are, of course, how Preston Sturges levels the playing field, but Arthur is asked only to accept the basic decency of her fellow New Yorkers, who suffer willingly on her behalf. She does, as the city falls in love in step with its well-meaning innocent. Her indulgence of fate's whims attracts type-As like lint, except they - like us - are only too happy to have a little direction for so much good faith.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Sweet Polly

Picture This: The Times of Peter Bogdanovich in Archer City, Texas (1991)
directed by George Hickenlooper
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The lesser of two Bogdanovich-centric movies (although, in a sense, aren't they all?) I've watched in the last week. In spite of the title, Picture This is producer Timothy "The Paper Chase/That's My Bush!" Bottoms' 19-years-in-the-making confession of love for early bloomer Cybill Shepherd. Desperate but entertaining on all accounts, the principals probably shouldn't have gone to Archer City in 1971, let alone 1990 (when Texasville was made). Polly Platt plays a more matter-of-fact Woody Harrelson to Peter and Tim's Sam and Sean, which makes Larry McMurtry either T-Bone Burnett or Cheech Marin, whoever looks better in his high school yearbook.

A Leek in a Land of Dragons

The Phantom Light (1935)
directed by Michael Powell
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

"This Wales is another world, where the locals speak either an impenetrable language of their own, or English in the harsh cadences of some ancient epic poetry; where the talk still runs to fairies and spectral presences; where the residents battle the natural elements that yield their livelihood."

Dave Kehr, New York Times, September 29, 2008

Sometimes a tossed-off paycheck is just this month's rent, even if, as it did with Powell, Wales eventually became everything Kehr says it is. But The Phantom Light is as tepid as The Ghost Train, or any of a hundred cockney vaudeville routines masquerading as eerie, foggy British mystery. Only in England in 1935 would the lead actress be thirty-six years old; Binnie Hale, that year's "blonde on the rocks," cuts up the lighthouse keeper's best pair of Sunday trousers to sashay around in, and for all the world looks like someone's mom in shorts, calling everyone in for lunch at the beach on summer vacation.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Every B Actress in Hollywood a Queen

Chandu the Magician (1932)
directed by William Cameron Menzies & Marcel Varnel
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

An altogether silly ancient Near East radio caper that nonetheless cements the influence of James Wong Howe on the special effects cinematography of Dean Cundey. Miniatures and matte paintings were the computer-generated imagery of their day, and Howe softly x-rays sun-baked mud brick temples in a holy quest for levitating yogis, Zoroastrian death lasers, and Medjay guards risen from their tombs. The only intrusion on this appealingly insulated hotbed of mysticism is, of course, the helpless, inexplicable Regent family, humorless colonialists.

June Vlasek (later Lang) plays daughter Betty Lou Regent; her kidnapping and auction at a smutty bachelors bazaar is an odd and unrestrained commentary on Hollywood's lust for eager young starlets transformed into unwilling exhibitionists. Sexuality made monstrously aware of itself, more often behind the camera than on, but here encapsulated in fifteen year-old Lang's prelude to the satin-draped screams of King Kong's Fay Wray. As shocking for its off-handed execution as its perversity, the scene - awash in light, with a crowd of stereotyped Persian traders rattling their coins at the feet of one more forgotten face and body - is, in its unnoticed backlot way, a much more compelling example of martyrdom than twenty stoic Passion of Joan of Arcs.

Cigarette cards and platinum hair

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Girls and Gunpowder

The World in His Arms (1952)
directed by Raoul Walsh
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

It took Hollywood to tell the British legend of Robin Hood right - twice. Made 14 years after Errol Flynn won the keys to Prince John's kingdom, and directed by the man who did as much as Michael Curtiz to nurture Flynn's fame, The World in His Arms imagines the early history of the United States as a country of robber kings, in love with the daughters of Russian aristocrats only when the daughters dress like San Francisco whores. Even at sea in an ocean of studio Technicolor (rainbows vacationed in California in 1952), this superlative example of the adventure genre looks extravagant, from the bootblack demeanor of Orthodox Russian robes to the lips, eyes, and pillowed décolletage of Ann Blyth and her good-time West Coast competitors. Like Walsh, Gregory Peck's Captain Jonathan Clark is in it for the cash, and it says a great deal about Walsh's cinematic aspirations that Clark's purchase of Alaska from Tsar Alexander II is no less a fictional feat than the real-life princely, creaking schooners the director hauls out to race on a blustery, full-scale Pacific afternoon.