Saturday, February 07, 2009

A Sliver of Moonlight is a Thread on the Floor

Coraline (2009)
directed by Henry Selick
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at Century 14 Downtown

Last week, Dave Kehr called Pinocchio "the most nocturnal of animated films," and reading it, I was reminded of what I didn't like about Henry Selick's unemotional Coraline. Ostensibly, the film aspires to a similar late-hour Pleasure Island with the eccentric boarding house where an unhappy girl follows her family to live. But Selick is too much the toyshop tinkerer, more interested in the mechanics of his stop-motion design - the rhythm in the stitch of a doll's head, or eyes replaced with thread and buttons - than anything truly childlike. Loneliness, say, instead of French & Saunders lending their long, dated squabbles to one more riff on the grotesque Triplets of Belleville (a terrible movie whose success animation will be paying for for a long time). You can do a lot with a ghost at the bottom of a well, but you have to trap the heroine there, and let her sit awhile in the silence before she wonders if the darkness is playing tricks on her. A kid could react with a scream or a question, but you can't make too many assumptions. Selick does.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

I've Traveled Back in Time to Slay Circle of Iron

The Silent Flute (1978)
directed by Richard Moore
rating: 1 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

I can only assume that James Coburn's contribution to the original draft of this screenplay was the orgy that Cord the wandering warrior stumbles upon in the desert, just after a man in a barrel of oil (Eli Wallach's "Man-in-Oil") has told him that he can never hope to overcome the "pull" of his libido. Whatever Coburn, Bruce Lee, and Stirling Silliphant intended the first time around - when Lee wasn't an international star and had time to flatter the egos of Hollywood's leading action men with one-on-one martial arts instruction - was pointless without that initial spirit of good will. Carradine's mustachioed desert king might be a manageable substitute for Bruce as a wandering sage, but Canadian muscle man Jeff Cooper is no Steve McQueen, no James Coburn, and - Dallas or not - a real sap. What Gimme Shelter is to the end of the 60s, The Silent Flute does for the decade that everyone thought would make the independents kings. Put an amen to it.

If it's Fiction, it's True

Macon County Line (1974)
directed by Richard Compton
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The pretty red sunrise that starts Macon County Line couldn't be anywhere but California, but Chris (Alan Vent) joking about the "double-firebrand" wrestling hold he put on his mother is straight Louisiana drive-in talk. Max Baer, Jr. writes himself the best role for a sheriff in Resistol straw since James Dickey's turn as Bullard in Deliverance; like Dickey, the onetime Jethro Bodine made a pile of money on a single screenplay, and like Dickey, he earned it. Deputy Reed Morgan's disinterested first hello to a trio of joyriders catches and sticks on an Illinois tag. From there on out, the wheels spin until they're sunk.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Art of the First Try

I Love You Again (1940)
directed by W. S. Van Dyke
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Six years after The Thin Man, and four years after Libeled Lady, the William Powell/Myrna Loy sell-by date is still a long way around the bend. I always liked that Pittsburgh-born Powell fell in love with Jean Harlow instead of Myrna Loy, and I like that Loy and Powell both seemed to live sensible, happy lives through a series of unsensational marriages (seven, all told). In I Love You Again, neither one of them is selling a too-romantic-to-be-true Manhattan fantasy, though the scotch flows as freely as ever. Woody Van Dyke, the director - another good egg who took his considerable talent in stride - imagines Habersville, Pennsylvania (or Anywhere, USA), as the best place for a wife to realize that her husband is the man she dreamed he'd be, instead of the man he is (or was). The man he was had an amateur's fondness for taxidermy and a Republican's zest for the Rotary Club; the man he becomes doesn't pinch a dime buying his bride the right nightgown or his con-man crony the best champagne. A New Deal for the rest of us in the best years of our lives.