Thursday, May 28, 2009

Guttenberg's Folly

The Boys from Brazil (1978)
directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
rating: 1 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Easily the most dated popular thriller I’ve ever seen, a fiction so laborious and repetitive in its plot, so absurd in its performances – Olivier’s Jewish caricature is worth the price of a frozen turkey – and so hobbled in its action (or inaction, what with Gregory Peck and Hamlet himself grappling with canes and a roomful of stuffed Dobermans) as to really write the book on why it was good news when the movie industry left the 1970s behind. Even so, I can’t help but imagine what an actor like Charlton Heston would have done with either of the movie’s most infamous roles just by taking both without the slightest hint of seriousness – or with the same committed lack of preparation that gave his career its lovely, absurd continuity. Peck and Olivier were presumably smart enough to realize how silly these paychecks looked on paper, but they play their dueling madmen for all the world like each actor owed his performance to the memory of someone who died. Heston might have even made it fun, certainly for himself if not quite for me, so I’ll take a page from the man’s memoirs and be happy to be glad that there are so many more movies I have yet to learn about, look forward to, and enjoy.

Friday, May 22, 2009

But They Sure Know How to Use It

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
directed by Woody Allen
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Rebecca Hall’s black-and-white photo shoot in the July issue of Italian Vogue is page after page of a pretty actress with absolutely nothing to convey – a good example of what VCB could have been without the more-than-willing participation of Spain’s own Bogart and Bacall, Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz. Thematically, it’s nice that Allen seems to side with the more adventurous of his two American songbirds (Hall willingly retreats into her own vacant timidity, but with every indication of some residual unhappiness), although, again, perhaps the artistic ménage-a-trois only seems like the obvious choice to us, given its progenitors’ irresistible appeal. When people recommend a movie strictly for one performance, it’s usually someone antagonistic (Ralph Fiennes), dreary (Christian Bale), or so far over the top that it couldn’t be anyone but Laurence Olivier. Not so here, where Javier’s warmth says everything that Allen’s setting (the residences of Barcelona’s wealthiest, dullest expatriates) never could, and considerably more than the screenplay or director deserve.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Returning Through the Woods I Was Lost In

Vampyr (1932)
directed by Carl Theodor Dryer
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

In the spring of 2003, I lived in Harpswell, Maine, and read about the "atmospheric" Vampyr for the first time. A mangled VHS was the best copy I could procure, and I assumed a bad print could only add to the mystery and age of this famous Danish curiosity (typical). I was bored with the movie, but I gave its reputation the benefit of the doubt and assumed I would think otherwise someday.

When Criterion announced a restoration, I ogled the cover art and happily perused a new generation of glowing reviews. I added Vampyr to my Netflix queue, and even had a rare and appropriately stormy night in New Mexico to watch it in the dark. And the movie began well enough, with odd images and strange fictions, and the patina of Old World peasant dreams. But it didn't last; not even the cheapest apothecary would pedal so short-lived a spell.

I don't think Dryer could contain his obvious glee at his production's rudimentary special effects, and the truth is that they call attention to themselves because he used them too much. Vampyr is a repetitious movie, not a languid one. It is burdened more than haunted, however beautiful and effective the occasional nightmare punctuation like this one:

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Camouflage Chic

Predator (1987)
directed by John McTiernan
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Watching a collection of witty retorts from famous 80s action movies that Syl sent over reminded me that I've more or less come full circle in what I want to see on the tray of my DVD player. Full circle to 9th grade, that is. An invisible alien that comes to Earth to hunt crack commandos in a South American jungle (and I'm sure Predator was pitched with even fewer words than that) is the best way to distill mind-melting afternoon heat into a hot shot of summer entertainment. Never mind that now I can immerse myself in - and no doubt be disappointed by - the Alien vs. Predator behemoth; what's important is that I can finally start recommending the original, instead of just quietly shuffling my feet when someone else talks about how great it is. Begin with each character only having one name - Dutch, Dillon, Mac, Blaine, Billy, Poncho, and Hawkins - and let each of them - men of few but substantial words - take it from there.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Planets Beyond Stars

Star Trek (2009)
directed by J. J. Abrams
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at Century 14 Downtown

I'm a Star Trek fan. I grew up watching The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, and the death of Kirk's father in the opening minutes of Abrams' heart-of-a-blockbuster was a more emotional moment for me than anything so contrived has a right to be. Kirk Senior's soapy good looks don't account for it, and villains don't get much sillier than a bald Eric Bana, but there I was, with rapt attention. Star Trek has always been a generous show, but its pace and tone, specifically - thoughtful in the midst of action, wise in its writers' use of an endless universe's gifts - reminds me, I think, of the stories my father read to me as a kid. And so Picard's warm introduction to The Next Generation's credit sequence reminded me of my childhood, even as a kid, just as Leonard Nimoy - nearly 80 now - reminds me of what it was I loved so much in stories then, which was adventure and a campfire to return to - to sit beside someone and imagine far-away worlds. One could argue that none of this has anything to do with Star Trek the movie at all, but it does.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Where's the Blue Neon?

Payday (1973)
directed by Daryl Duke
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

In his autobiography, Waylon Jennings recounts a scene from Payday where Rip Torn fires a handgun from the window of his Nashville limousine. Waylon supposes that it was based on an anecdote about his own wild days, which included cocaine-fueled pinball frenzies and different women on every floor of the local hotel. To hear Waylon tell it, there was a lot of bad behavior, but to see Rip play it - in a performance he's famous for that nonetheless amounts to his best impression of Bill Paxton's signature grimace - it was never any fun. That's the problem with Payday, a movie about country music that gets some regional and historical details right - the nightly repetition of time spent on the road, the unassuming tyranny of rural DJs - but can't help but condescend to the appeal and the attraction of the industry, its participants, and their fans. Maybe I'd be kinder if I hadn't just read Waylon, but a good time is a big umbrella.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Shifting Sands Dusts Its Cheeks in Powder Keg Beauty

Quantum of Solace (2008)
directed by Marc Forster
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

It's always nice to see an actor like Mathieu Amalric dragged from the occasional, recognizable critical international cross-over into a truly international French stereotype. I'd have loved it if, instead of the desert hotel with sinister connections to Chile's water supply, the action had ended at the View inside Monument Valley. On the surface, they look alike, but the Navajo reservation's bumpy dirt road would have made for a more kinetic chase sequence than the foot chase through - Tuscany? Venice? Or were there cars? Or jet packs! Bond can curry the goodwill of a reboot every twenty years or so, but they settle back in to run-of-the-mill pretty fast, unless, like me, you've never been to any of these places, and always appreciate the guided tour.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Buttercup Redeem Me

Beowulf (2007)
directed by Robert Zemeckis
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Motion capture remains the most condescending way to dare your audience not to laugh at the dead-eyed mugs on screen - Zemeckis is a kind of bully in that regard - but a movie this expensive is always more than just its director's single-minded intentions, and Beowulf's technicians clearly read the same Usborne Viking and Norse mythology primers that I loved and re-read as a kid. Those silly faces aside, it's a beautiful movie, full of great scale. Like worthier animated films, Beowulf offers sights that live-action can't: a tracking shot from a mead hall, over a mountain, and into the woods; the supernatural suddenness with which a roomful of torches are extinguished, and the immediate impression of a merciless winter wailing at the door; dragons on the ramparts; the ocean washing over a corpse in shallow surf, with the meditative rhythm that only animated water can find.

I didn't expect it. I wanted to hate it, but everything old in Beowulf - the land, the artifacts, the stories - rang true. But it's like watching the bunting at an inauguration; better when it's Barack and not W., and the director of Forrest Gump - let's face it - will always be a Republican.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

America Roots for the Dodgers

El Norte (1983)
directed by Gregory Nava
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

If it's good enough to appear as a positive example of Southern California movie-making in Los Angeles Plays Itself, then it's good enough for me to add to the Netflix queue. But no streak lasts forever, and unlike The Exiles or Killer of Sheep, El Norte disproportionately treads melodrama for too little fresh air at the surface. No matter how many non-professionals Nava casts, or how much sympathy he has for the roving lives of immigrants - no matter how green the green hills of Guatemala - there is more truth in life than there is in death, and great movies are more than the sum of a filmmaker's best intentions. More importantly, if Kent MacKenzie can do it in 72 minutes, there's no reason that Nava needs 141.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Long-Haired Buscemi and Forget the Bills

Airheads (1994)
directed by Michael Lehmann
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Airheads makes me miss being 14, when I probably would have liked Airheads even more. Clips of Pearl Jam on VH1 - or even Nirvana on MTV, frankly - don't really do it for me, if "doing it" means remembering what music meant to me as a teenager. Sometimes you just have to admit that you listened to as much Paul Simon as Led Zeppelin, then be grateful that your sense of humor, at least, was a little better-tuned to the times. Airheads concludes - before the credits - with Brendan Fraser's rock n' roll band not playing a concert, which gets at the heart of the movie better than anything on the soundtrack does. After all, the story about Marlon Brando impersonating Butt-head on the set of Don Juan DeMarco isn't funny because Marlon Brando was a serious actor; it's funny because Butt-head is funny. Beavis and Butt-head make a cameo in Airheads, and if there's a lesson to be learned from Lemmy, Chazz, Rex, and Pip, it's that there's no substitute for the real thing.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Grab the Handle, Push the Button

The Venture Bros. - Season Three (2008)
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

With each new season, I wonder how long the show's creators can sustain the exploits of the son of a famous adventurer and his neurotic, less adventurous brood. I tell myself that Rusty Venture's feelings of inadequacy are going to seem pretty stale this time around, that there are only so many ways for Brock Samson to kill a man, and that villains with names like Molotov Cocktease are not only childish, but dumb. On paper, The Venture Bros. belongs in the 1990s, but when Brock scalps himself to put his hair and Hawaiian shirt on a shark, the old joke about jumping it is transformed into something else - an indicator that the things that make this show great will never tire, never age, and never let you down. Sure, there's lots of shouting, and plenty of oddness for oddness's sake, but frantic is downright lovable when everything else I love is either silly or just low-key.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Michael Caine in the Look that Defined Men's Fashion for a Century

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
directed by Woody Allen
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

A wall has been constructed in my estimation of Woody Allen, and a well-intentioned one-time fan can climb no higher than 3 out of 5. The lines I always remembered from Hannah and Her Sisters were, of course, Mickey's quick goodnight to the well-meaning Holly: "I had a great evening. It was like the Nuremberg trials." And sure, it's still funny, except that Dianne Wiest plays Holly with such sincerity that I couldn't help but be hurt on her behalf. Once upon a time, I'd have argued that that's what Woody wants you to feel, but come on. Sure enough, Holly winds up married to Mickey by scaling back her cocaine use; Mickey lands a few more insults at the record store, and on Thanksgiving everyone's learned to be happy with what they've already got - in Mickey's case, a pregnant bride thirteen years his junior.

I think it's time for an episode of Rocko's Modern Life with Boone.

Who could resist?

Sunday, May 03, 2009

If Joan Was Your Great-Grandmother, Lucky You

Footlight Parade (1933)
directed by Lloyd Bacon
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

It isn't just the Yankee doodle tribute to Man of the People FDR that makes Footlight Parade a great example of Hollywood's love for the common American. There is, of course, enough patriotism in Busby Berkeley's musicals to resurrect the United States from the depths of the Great Depression by sheer enthusiasm alone, but Berkeley's own New Deal - his patented "parade of faces" - did more for the industry's anonymous, forgotten beauties than any director last century's side of QT. Instead of a Rockettes-like string of legs and fancy frocks, the women in Busby's chorus lines are each treated to a soft-focus, pretty-as-a-picture close-up that only the movies can provide. If your great-grandmother had been in Footlight Parade (instead of speaking Polish in South Texas), you could go back to the movie on DVD today and find her. That makes Busby a generous man: the great gifter of thousands of stars.