Thursday, April 30, 2009

Play One

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)
directed by Monte Hellman
rating: 5 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

I'm embarrassed to admit how many minutes I spent searching the message boards on Art Garfunkel's website in order to discover that the photograph of Laurie Bird on the back cover of 1981's Scissors Cut is exactly the sort of image one imagines Art Garfunkel would agree to, based on the snapshot of Art in a tux on the other side. It serves me right, but I still couldn't think of a thing to say that people I like who love Two-Lane Blacktop haven't already said.

So here's an observation and an old portrait instead. The shots from the interior of James Taylor's car do something that rear-projected chase scenes in black-and-white movies never could: there's a visceral sense of acceleration instead of simply speed. The movie's characters spend more time sitting in bars, restaurants, bleachers, and repair shops than they do inside automobiles, so of course Monte Hellman and cinematographer Jack Deerson would snag the heart of stop and start.

"Some day this country's gonna be a fine, good place to be. Maybe it needs our sweaters in the ground before that time can come."

Monday, April 27, 2009

You Don't Need a Mortician to Know Where This Joke is Heading

Pushing Daisies - Season One (2007)
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Although the premise is tailor-made for a modern day fairy tale, the truth is that the week-to-week "mysteries" add nothing to the protagonist's first sad revelaton: two people who love one another more than anything can never touch. They can be close - share bedrooms and meals - but it becomes a kind of mockery over time. Instead, the would-be lovers concentrate on distractions. He bakes pies and she changes her cute spring dresses, her hair more unruly with each passing hour.

Yes, it's a home run pilot, but that's why Pushing Daisies would have made a better movie than a TV show. Frankly, Ned's "gift" is a gimmick once you get past his love for Chuck. The man who can bring back the dead joins a detective to help close the book on unsolved murders, but each new episode, more contrived than the last, can barely muster enough Amélie-wattage preciousness to distract anyone from Ned and Chuck's core emotional issue for forty-five minutes. There are aunts, of course - always eccentric aunts in stories like these - and flashbacks, and one or two unintentional lies, but it's a candy shop. Too sweet.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Smiley, Pete, and Ramick: Pals

Lady Killer (1933)
directed by Roy Del Ruth
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

This still is something serious:

The moustache imparts a sinister precision; the backdrop, menace.

This is something else:

The moustache is gone, the Brylcreemed hair hidden beneath a ridiculous usher's cap embossed with the studio's logo. The expression on this man's face is mischievous, not monstrous. Silly, even.

But look at the poster:

When an audience saw James Cagney's name on a theater marquee in 1933, it was clearly a gangster that moviegoers expected to meet on the big screen inside. But Jimmy was a song and dance man, and thankfully he wouldn't be asked to drag his co-stars around a sound stage in a fit of mob fury forever. If I were the intemperate ruler of some muggy dictatorial regime, every mention of the words "Barton Fink" would be excised from the critical lexicon and replaced with the life and times of Dan Quigley, inadvertent leading man. All that unnecessary moll misogyny aside, Lady Killer is as breezy as a movie can be, and better than movies about movies have ever been. Cagney was king of the outliers - not the toughs, the unheralded, or the forgotten, but the vagrants, the slightly sleazy, and the well-intentioned jokers who could not rise above the back-breaking demands of even the most average working day. The king is dead; long live the king.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Inner Lives of Famous Faces

The Prowler (1951)
directed by Joseph Losey
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at The Egyptian Theatre

On the one hand, The Prowler is exactly what James Ellroy says it is, which is what got us into the theater in the first place. "Suffocating, ugly passion" does wonders at the box office, but I remember less about the escalating insanity that compels the principal players towards a ghost town in the desert (the landscape of atom bombs) than the early late-night scenes where the unfortunate object of Van Heflin's affection waits by the radio alone. So, probably, does Ellroy, and so does everyone. They're lush and lonely scenes. Evelyn Keyes' husband is a DJ, and each night he serenades her in his own sonorous, selfish way. When he goes off the air, she turns off the stereo and waits for him.

Their quiet Los Angeles neighborhood, the oddity of empty lots, and the quick transition from a comforting voice to silence renders the possibility that someone outside is looking in both terrible and comforting. There's a hall of fame in movies strictly for the night air in California, from The Big Sleep to Fallen Angel to this. The parallel on both ends - the psychotic and narcotic qualities to The Prowler that wash the senses clean - to the Dream Factory then and now means you never really lose Old Hollywood. One has to embrace the fact that John Huston financed this movie for Keyes even though he'd already divorced her: rapturous, rotted-heart contradictions.

Observe and Report (2009)
directed by Jody Hill
rating: 1 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at Grauman's Chinese Theatre

In March, I hadn't heard of Jody Hill. After Eastbound & Down I would follow him anywhere, and an afternoon show at a nearly empty Chinese Theatre seemed like an easy enough campaign on paper. There's no point in mincing words. I didn't like Observe and Report. It's mean-spirited, confused, and cruel. But I'm willing to try and give Hill the benefit of the doubt.

When David Gordon Green went to Hollywood, Hill - his classmate - stayed behind. For ten years, he went to the movies in North Carolina and watched whatever it was that Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell starred in. "These are funny," Hill would think, but they could be funnier, and more violent, with lots more swearing. When Knocked Up came out, I like to think that Hill, like me, couldn't move past that most ridiculous of premises - the beauty and the slob - and that, very possibly, he turned to Danny McBride or Ben Best and said, "That would never happen in real life." In real life, it wouldn't be funny if Seth Rogen got Katherine Heigel drunk and then had sex with her, because she'd need to have a lot to drink to do it, and Knocked Up - which never mentions the word "abortion" - never mentions the word "rape" either.

Flush from the success of The Foot Fist Way (apparently Eastbound & Down got underway after O & R), Hill gets to make his Hollywood movie. He casts Seth Rogen (probably because he has to, but it fits), and all the things Hill's been thinking about for ten years become manifest in one very horrible moment: a rape scene. He wants his comedy to be different, he thinks - he throws around Taxi Driver in interviews - but when the moment comes, he pulls his punch. It would be worse if Anna Farris, passed out on her bed with vomit on the pillow, said nothing; what she says doesn't change anything, but it lessens the blow of what we've just realized we're watching. I made it through the rest of the movie this way, when I might have walked out instead.

But even if I'm right - if a nod is as good as a wink to blind Judd Apatow - I can still feel a little sick just having written those last two paragraphs. I don't have to like Observe and Report, and I don't.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Better a Billboard that Smokes than Those Silly Eyes of God

Artists and Models (1955)
directed by Frank Tashlin
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Jerry Lewis and Shirley MacLaine serenading one another for the better part of a day in a New York City stairwell is the sort of scene that people who don't like Jerry Lewis seem to think of when they envision a theater full of Frenchmen laughing through their cigarettes. MacLaine and Lewis are too similar to be compatible, but even comic book readers deserve their happiness, and so it's hard to begrudge either one of them the candy cane rush each aspires to. But in a movie like this, my happiness is paramount, especially at the expense of someone else, and that's why it's good that Dean Martin takes the lumps from his friends and lovers just to inspire my heart with a song. Dean made it okay not to have money, and he could sell that smitten personality like it was your confidence he was using to wisecrack the blonde. This being a movie, the blonde comes around. She appreciates Jerry as your foil. And that, folks, is all, and all you need.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

In Prescott, We Eat Biscuits

Junior Bonner (1972)
directed by Sam Peckinpah
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Videothèque

At first blush, Junior Bonner is just the sort of cobbled-together fantasy of fading male glory that fading male star Steve McQueen and down-but-not-out director Sam Peckinpah (Pat Garrett was released in '73) might have imagined after the night's first shots were long since flushed down the john. But Peckinpah's credit sequences, as usual, go a long way in setting a better, easier tone. The side streets of Prescott, Arizona, match the screenplay's gentle resistance to too much self-importance. Scenes that should feel unorganized feel loose instead, and in place of an ugly, expected confrontation between father and son, or brother and brother, there's a rambling, recuperative fight at a bar. Straw Dogs (1971) and The Getaway (1972) aren't just Peckinpah's two worst movies; they're ugly artifacts of Hollywood's most misogynistic impulses. But Junior Bonner - made between them - is so well-tempered and modestly proportioned that only Peckinpah and McQueen could have pulled it off, at least in 1972. There weren't many directors left who could say with a straight face that they wanted to film a decent, upright western. The producers probably thought they were kidding, but don't underestimate a drunk.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Two Sides to Great American Myth-Making

Eastbound & Down (2009)
rating: 5 out of 5 cravats
on HBO at Syl's

The best, funniest, and sweetest show on television is all of those things both because and in spite of Danny McBride. In everything else I've seen him in, he steals scenes so effectively that he might just as well take the rest of the movie with him when he goes. Kenny Powers is the perfect larger-than-life id of a small-town king like Bust-Ass, the kind of fictional persona that Hollywood stars could once happily hitch their careers to.

I went to Monument Valley with Syl last weekend (no need to pretend I wrote this in April). I thought, as one will, of big circus tents and slabs of steak and enough alcohol to keep Duke, Ward Bond, and Old Mose happy. But what did John Ford and John Wayne have on me and Syl, at least as far as friendship is concerned? A good cinematographer, maybe, and an honorary chieftainship or two. And that got me thinking about Ben Best, Jody Hill, and Danny McBride, who were friends first, in North Carolina, before they sat down and suggested Eastbound & Down to HBO.

The rest of the cast is hired hands. John Fawkes, who acts like he was always Kenny Powers' older brother, grew up in Minnesota, and even had a guest spot on one of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's best episodes. His resume reads like a stock Western stunt man's, with a hundred random TV credits to his name. And how is Katy Mixon not the real-life high school crush who makes April Buchanon so believable?

No point in saying they were born to play the roles they do. As John Ford would mutter through his well-chewed handkerchief, it's a job. But Eastbound & Down belongs to its supporting cast and crew as much as McBride, and if a topless barfly on the back of a Sea-Doo isn't exactly Cicatrice on horseback, there's a lot more truth to the girl on the jet ski than Henry Brandon painted red. Everything I imagine behind the scenes on The Searchers is front and center in the friends of Kenny Powers, whose best years, when you think about it, were when he played for the Braves.

Kenny and Duke both are proud to have never drunk a glass of water.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Aznavour Plays Ukraine

Ivan's Childhood (1962)
directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The truth is, I still identify Stalker as "one of my favorites," in spite of only having seen it once five years ago. Most of the time those blasts from the past don't hold up so well, so I try to be less dogmatic than I used to be. What I cling to with Tarkovsky is my memory of empty spaces - steppes, chapels, arctic islands - into which the director casts lone, observant souls. I remember the occasional face from his films - maybe because the covers of DVDs tend to feature them - but the faces, the actors, are not what I remember most.

That is what separates Ivan's Childhood from what came after. It is a kid movie first, and a Tarkovsky movie second, insofar as the human emotions that are usually pushed out into the mirror of forests and still waters must find a more immediate purchase in the eyes and actions of a boy. As a movie about growing up, it has as much in common with Dazed and Confused as the history of Russia's eastern front. That makes it perhaps less unique - after all, there are lots of movies about children - but then again, what's better than Dazed and Confused? The 400 Blows? Over the Edge? Not much.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Thaw of April

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965)
directed by Martin Ritt
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

And here it is, the inadvertent impetus for so much grousing about dismal, dreary British stars. Criterion's least explicable re-release is just the sort of cutthroat, dour, and somber spy picture you're not even sure you want to watch until you settle nicely into the precise but leisurely searchlight sweep of a cool-to-the-touch, technically proficient thriller. I'm amazed that it ends with such a wallowing gesture of sentimentality, but until that final moment the double-crosses and double scotches inside West Berlin checkpoint guardhouses make good on their promise to expose the anti-Bond at the heart of MI6. Say what you will about James, but he was described from the start by Ian Fleming as "rather like Hoagy Carmichael in a way," and I for one would rather be serenaded by the guy who played characters with names like Cricket, Celestial O'Brien, and Hi Linnet (his first three roles!) than Hamlet and Antony together.

Hi Linnet trades for a musical instrument.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Myrtle Beach Shorthand

The Foot Fist Way (2006)
directed by Jody Hill
rating: 4 out of 5 cravatsh
on DVD from Netflix

Here, too, is something to be said for the art of collaboration. More specifically, director Jody Hill - who also plays creepy but endearing Mike McAllister, protagonist Fred Simmons' (Danny McBride) best friend - co-wrote the screenplay for The Foot Fist Way with McBride and Ben Best. Best stars as McBride's hero-turned-antagonist Chuck "The Truck" Wallace, which literally puts three characters with tremendous egos (and a lot of potential for overbearing posture-specific improv) in the hands of the writers who wrote them.

The result couldn't be better. Since Best is clearly invested in Chuck, he's endearing even at his worst. A lot of comedies would set you up to like him strictly for his most selfish behavior, but Chuck, among other things, seems to have his own code. Honoring a contract is pretty high on the list; sleeping with someone's wife is not. Like Fred's tae kwon do class, the script leans towards crass and rote but always rights itself to sail true. Not that it doesn't play on a lot of the reasons my parents never let me take martial arts as a kid - always the strange instructors - but that's as intentional and as welcome as Hill's good effort at rescuing slow-motion from the purgatory of Wes Anderson's career.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Preston Sturges Needed a Prison Full of Inmates to Say What Kenji Mizoguchi Could Say with One Fat Doctor

Osaka Elegy (1936)
directed by Kenji Mizoguchi
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

It's difficult to imagine the modern equivalent for what it must have felt like to be a Japanese citizen watching Osaka Elegy in 1936. Even if the country looked on women twice as sympathetically as Mizoguchi's men do, the public reaction would necessarily seem to be one of either anger or dismissal. But Mizoguchi made a career behind the camera without ever letting up on his nation's male hierarchy. On the one hand, you can point to the women - gentle, strong, oft-abused heroines - as the secret of his success. But like a lot of thoughtful people, Mizoguchi seems like he was probably a pretty funny guy, and Osaka Elegy gets a lot of its surprising buoyancy from some unexpected situational humor. Road to Okinawa it's not, but watch the scene where a CEO distractedly stops for prayer on his way to breakfast, and tell me you can't picture Bob Hope clapping his hands once, speaking "please grant me health and wealth" to the sun, and then going in the kitchen to complain about the tea.