Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Country by the Ocean

I Love You, Man (2009)
directed by John Hamburg
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at Century 14 Downtown

I always agree when friends tell me I don't see enough movies in the theater, and I Love You, Man is a good example of how comfortable a little consistency can be. There's a scene where Andy Samberg, who plays a personal trainer at a Los Angeles gym, tells the guy doing sit-ups that it's almost beach season. And what do you know, it is. I like that I could be living in a cave, see Paul Rudd on a billboard, and set my watch by whatever weather he's dressed to enjoy.

Also, Andy Samberg's character is gay, a fact of life that the well-adjusted cast takes in stride. I know that Brüno is still on the horizon, but if anything can get us past the gay panic rut that lesser bromances inevitably fall into, it's incremental earnestness in pre-season comedy quickies like this one. And not to make too much of it, but there's a real moral center to I Love You, Man - one that doesn't lay the blame for any romantic misunderstanding at the feet of a female lead, or make too many jokes at the expense of Rashida Jones's unattached friend.

In the end, these local California productions have found such a good formula - kind, funny stars and plenty of beach-side sunlight - that they're just like a pass beneath the low-hanging orange tree on the corner. Not my corner, of course, but west and easy.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Kids Skate on Campus, in Hallways, on Stairs

Sky High (2005)
directed by Mike Mitchell
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The most telling Kurt Russell anecdote from Sky High's special features is his peripheral participation in the blooper reel. He isn't in it, except for just outside the frame as Kelly Preston tries take after take. That's a professional for you, and "The Commander" is probably as close we'll ever get to his role-as-autobiography. In a world where no Albuquerque comic book shop stocked Seaguy this Wednesday, it's nice to know that Kurt's first latex iteration is someone that Grant Morrison could root for.

Never mind that it's good to see a high school gymnasium's worth of superheroes enjoying the full range of their powers without hating themselves or the people they're supposed to help (see: Ayn Rand, The Incredibles). As Steve said, who takes out the trash in Galt's Gulch, anyway? In Sky High, it's good to be the bus driver on the most normal of days, and on bad days even better. That, and a nice turn by Bruce Campbell as Coach McGuirk, or as close as a man with Ash's energy can get to the Patron Saint of Arrested Development.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

To Frank, A Skull, A Crown

Masters of the Universe (1987)
directed by Gary Goddard
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Syl once told me that I recoil at the first whisper of The Man From Another Place twitching in reverse while shadows move across the curtains of the Black Lodge because of my subconscious fear of epilepsy. I buy it, and I'll add to that my memory of the Sorceress of Castle Greyskull aging before my eyes at a San Antonio dollar theater in 1987. Seeing Masters of the Universe again, I realized that there is nothing akin to Raiders of the Lost Ark's melting faces in Skeletor's curse of physical transformation on the visage of a wise middle-aged woman. In one shot, she is young, and in the next, weak, listless, and old.

Do I fear old age less than I used to? I doubt it, but there is more context to enjoy in the movie now than there was in my first ten years, like the Jack Kirby connection, a vegetarian's interstellar disgust, or one more happy lot of teenagers living the 1980s to the fullest. The idea that the heroine, running for her life from an alien invasion, could charge into the arms of he-man Dolph Lundgren and believe him when he tells her he's one of the good guys seems oddly naïve today. Has it been that long since swords and sandals had a sense of humor? Or just too many years since the last muscle-bound action star?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Incorporeal You

Signs of Life (1968)
directed by Werner Herzog
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Encounters at the End of the World relied on a little humor to give the loneliness of its characters enough leeway to look brave. Critics read it as repetitiveness, but it seemed to me more like a measured admission of defeat. The snow-mad penguin, as the cell biologists' feathered counterpart, was less an easy riff on the director's obsession with chickens than a clumsy stab at fiction. Herzog didn't find the people he wanted to at McMurdo Station, and since this was a documentary about people - paid for by people - he couldn't pursue the less structured images that have made his past non-fiction so beautiful.

The quiet madness of Signs of Life prefaces every Aguirre and every Kinski anecdote to come, but is temperamentally much more in line with Herzog's hero Satyajit Ray. Full of summer heat and the same crickets that whisper through every coastal Mediterranean production of the French New Wave, the images sing a story of the elements along the chalk-white ramparts where sun and sea convene in the hair of men. In black and white, of course, which some would argue, in light of Fitzcarraldo, is like a thought waiting to be written down. Except that, instead of something we marvel at - the man in the bell tower, the boat - this is already a part of us, drawn out in rocket flares against the night sky.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Clean Break for the Border

Boarding Gate (2007)
directed by Olivier Assayas
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

People my age who write about movies on the Internet generally think of Olivier Assayas as a great director, but the last time I watched Irma Vep, something felt stale. I used to describe the famous rooftop heist with exhilaration in my voice, but I can't anymore. I remembered the club scenes and detached flirtations as foreign territory, and as such, romantic, but they were laughable now. And I think, where once I was inclined to rally flops like Demonlover or Les Destinées sentimentales beneath Irma Vep's banner, I'm now, in the wake of Clean and Boarding Gate, throwing out the whole mixed metaphor with the bathwater.

As Assayas himself said about Boarding Gate, "I suppose that it’s as straightforward as I can get." Meaning, I guess, that if Asia Argento is willing to play one more street-smart European in over her head, the director has his excuse to make that movie he's always talked about filming in Hong Kong. Michael Madsen, good as ever as Miles Rennberg - maybe the only character not continental enough to speak three languages - has a predilection here for erotic asphyxiation, and I say that belt is just enough leather to hang the rest of my long-standing goodwill.

Monday, March 02, 2009

In Spring, the Women All Wear Heels

The House Bunny (2008)
directed by Fred Wolf
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The pertinent question now is not whether Anna Faris is a good enough actress to play dumb, naive, or sweet, but how many roles the industry can write for her that don't depend upon a self-centered man for a foil. One of The House Bunny's biggest charms is the degree to which the members of Faris's adopted sorority calibrate the terms of their new popularity strictly by how they want to be perceived by other women. Male love interests are hardly excluded, but they're an afterthought. It's a nice contrast to Forgetting Sarah Marshall, for example, where Jason Segel's typically overbearing egotist (his characters' misdirected courtships have always been products of tremendous emotional selfishness) crowds out every reason why beauties like Mila Kunis would even cross the room to say hello.

This month's "Wanna Pet the House Bunny?" photo-shoot in GQ, accompanied by the requisite poolside crop-top, suggests that Faris won't Jean Arthur her way into the next generation's pantheon of stars past. But it's not Faris's fault. Movies like The House Bunny are still riffing on Mean Girls more than Mean Girls' predecessors, and Emma Stone, as The House Bunny's smart, daring redhead, is the Miu Miu to Lindsay Lohan's Prada. 90% is still just the right place at the right time.

I say, if The House Bunny isn't a script that Lilo is interested in, write her a better one. Write a part for Anna, too. Sisters, even! Two middle-school teachers in Florida (where both girls went to college) fly home to Omaha one Christmas and get delayed by a Great Plains snowstorm during a Dallas layover. They have enough cash to take a cab downtown, but it's up to the right encounter with the aging patriarch of a Texas wildcatting fortune to lay the rest of the state's oil reserves at the women's deserving feet. Four out of five cravats for sure!