Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Nine O’Clock Curfew

Twilight (2008)
directed by Catherine Hardwicke
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

On one hand, I can only cringe at Bella Swan’s mooning ineptitude over her superhero boyfriend Edward Cullen. Twilight at its worst plays like "Halloween," the Buffy episode where Buffy dresses up in a spellbound costume and believes she’s a helpless princess. When the spell is lifted, Buffy tells Angel that she wanted to be the sort of girl he used to date (18th century ladies in bustles and corsets), but Angel laughs it off; women like that, unlike dear Buffy, bored him.

Women like that don’t seem to bore Edward Cullen, although Hardwicke, Robert Pattinson, and Kristen Stewart do what they can to read between the lines and at least gift their characters with a normal, healthy teenage sex drive. That’s the other hand: a completely worthy romance full of far more yearning than I would have ever expected. Stewart and Pattinson are awfully pretty people, as attracted and attractive as even the most misguided Stephenie Meyer fan could wish for.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Buffy's Got Those Culver City Blues Again

True Blood - Season One (2008)
rating: 1 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Episode six – the “grief” episode – is a great example of how bad this show can get, and the problem with setting your vampire saga in similar emotional and narrative territory as the great vampire show is that True Blood makes a sad, pale-even-by-undead-standards contrast to Buffy. I have a laundry list of grievances against True Blood which I suppose I’ll get into, since the people I trust to stand in my corner have nothing but praise for Ms. Stackhouse & friends.

If nothing else, there’s a dearth of imagination in creator Alan Ball’s vision (I hold author Charlaine Harris blameless for cashing what I hope was a very large check). * For example, a show set in backwoods Louisiana is one of the few remaining opportunities to still make telephone land lines and bad cell phone reception relevant to a plot about isolation, loneliness, and the dark, but all of Sookie’s friends can call from anywhere, anytime. People should sweat (isn’t “sex” a big part of True Blood, too?) when they dance at an outdoor wedding reception, or make love in an un-air-conditioned house, or even walk outside. They don’t. And, of course, the incredible physical power of vampires is only called upon when needed by the writers; otherwise, wouldn’t Bill destroy half his plantation when he beats an old-fashioned iron toaster against the fireplace?

Black characters in True Blood can’t ever hold their liquor, drugs, or emotional outbursts. Accents are atrocious all around, and “dudes” like Sam – intended to be as loyal and reliable as the dogs they turn into – are, like Rufus in Gossip Girl, sad excuses for men. Can someone explain to me why Sookie’s grandmother’s house – the house that everyone says at least half a dozen times that Sookie’s grandmother takes such good care of – is covered in peeling paint?

If the world doesn’t want a lot of predictable Buffy hosannas from the peanut gallery, or childish remarks about the “accuracy” of a mob of Southern vampires living outside Baton Rouge, I certainly understand, but there are better examples elsewhere of every narrative hook the writers of True Blood try.

* I mean, Alan Ball wrote American Beauty, short-list contender for worst screenplay of all time. Did everyone forget that?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Love Me Yesterday, Love Me Tomorrow

Love Me Tonight (1932)
directed by Rouben Mamoulian
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from the Albuquerque Public Library

Maurice Chevalier, playing a tailor, breaks into song. His customer carries the tune to “Isn’t it Romantic?” out of the shop, where a cab driver takes over. The cabby’s fare hums it to the train station; a group of soldiers on their way to the country keep up the melody. Watching the soldiers’ maneuvers, a gypsy boy brings his violin back to camp, where the refrain drifts over the forest to Jeanette MacDonald, watching the moon from her uncle the Duke’s castle.

In my book and in my heart, that’s four cravats that can’t be broken, complete with three witches – or at the very least, aunts – brewing potions for fainting spells in the castle watchtower. Mamoulian keeps enough holdovers from the Lubitsch musicals that precede Love Me Tonight to ensure that one more superficial European setting never trumps old-fashioned Hollywood sex appeal, street comedy, and razzle-dazzle. And I love Jeanette MacDonald enough to concede that she was right to be jealous of Myrna Loy, who never matched her comedic timing and early-career ingénue appeal better than she does here.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Small of the Back in a Small Front Room

The Small Back Room (1949)
directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The British sentiment towards alcoholism in movies is to use the disease as shorthand for the unhappiness of Empire. On Masterpiece Theatre, in particular, at the height of that show’s powers, reach, and influence – which represents, in many ways, the apex of the British Empire’s hold on the world’s popular imagination, broadcast into millions upon millions of homes - the sad sons of emotionally frigid dynasties (Brideshead Revisited) and the abused wives of Kashmir generals (The Jewel in the Crown) were hopeless, but almost always sympathetic, drunks. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were certainly capable of a little political propaganda every now and again, but taken as a whole, few directors’ peripheral works are as consistently surprising and rewarding as P & P’s.

The Small Back Room is a study in wartime office politics, a thriller about dismantling Nazi bombs, and probably the first example I can name in British cinema of an unmarried couple happily sharing a life together in the same small London apartment. The protagonist is an alcoholic in a decade when there was barely a word for it, an admirable man with the cruel habit of pushing his caring, loving partner away. It sounds like someone Anthony Hopkins might play today, which would hardly be cause for recommendation. Instead, Powell and Pressburger play the story for what it is: a romance, reckless and swooning and so full of life and beauty that it need not concern Nazis, the war, or even alcoholism at all.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Today is Opposite Day

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (2003)
directed by Mike Hodges
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from the vaults

For fans of Clive Owen and Croupier, Mike Hodges’ I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is the next best easy recommendation – or, so I thought, until I did just that for Syl. With the rolling of the credits, I resolved to never go back and re-read a Bogdanovich Chorus review again. If this experience was any barometer, I will only regret every film I’ve rated higher than three cravats, every whisper campaign, and every movie-related conversation. I won’t be able to trust my own opinion, because I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is an overwrought and silly British tough, and I swear I used to think it was the best crime picture since forever ago. It’s not.

Hamburger, Meat

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)
directed by Peter Yates
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

In movies, Boston is usually treated as a plea for corporate sponsorship (Good Will Hunting) or as a joke (The Departed), but The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the right movie for a dyed-in-the-wool Aerosmith fan – not me, by the way - to be proud of. Never mind that it’s Robert Mitchum sitting at the Bruins game in a belted trench coat; the light in Boston Garden in this movie says more about ways to pass a New England winter than Harvard’s cinematic John Nashes could dream. Some recognizable aspect of the city is in almost every frame, as heavy and watchful as weather for the men who toil at their jobs and drink in bars and try for reconciliation.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

If You're Ever in Texas

The Whole Shootin' Match (1978)
directed by Eagle Pennell
rating: 5 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Syl

It’s easy to think of The Whole Shootin’ Match as testament to something: to faces, in light of Lou Perryman’s pointless death this spring; to friendship, apropos Eagle Pennell’s debilitating addictions; to movies, for being the medium that gives us hours like these. But nothing in this film was intended to burden, or impose, or slow down those who watch it. Great movies are over before you know it, and we talk about them, and write about them, when what we want to do most is watch them again. The precarious salvation of a lone surviving print makes The Whole Shootin’ Match something rarer than it should be; my argument is not in favor of its uncommonness, but against too much eulogizing. A personal movie as fragile and warmhearted as this one is small enough without any undue burdens, so it’s enough that you can get it on Netflix, three pages away.

And Santo, Unlike the Tramp, Remains a Mystery

Santo en la Frontera del Terror (1969)
directed by Rafael Pérez Grovas
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from the Albuquerque Public Library

It was nice to dip my toes – I almost wrote “clip my toes” - in a genre of Mexican moviemaking that I was hitherto ignorant of, but I can’t shake the feeling of a humorless anthropologist showing up too late to the party. Mostly, Santo is for kids, because only a kid’s imagination could stretch that lucha libre mask far enough to cover the shoddy production, gaping plot holes, and all-around carelessness that characterizes everything in the movie except the actors’ genial, family-minded performances. Operations to cure blindness mean getting to reference City Lights in any review; they share the same spirit, if not finesse.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Red McCombs, Meet Red October

The Hunt for Red October (1990)
directed by John McTiernan
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from the Albuquerque Public Library

As refreshing as it is to see Alec Baldwin playing something other than a barking dog, Red October is the first of two disappointments I experienced upon revisiting some old favorites with Syl. The movie itself is as “sturdy” as it’s always been (the same way you might describe a model home), as far as action-oriented exercises in flag-waving paranoia go, but the inexplicable shortcuts that big-budget directors sometimes take on their way to the box office really cut into the heart of these projects over time. Why, for example, would anyone put such a fake-looking beard on Jeffrey Jones? Why would you film the movie’s last scene – which is supposed to take place along a river in Maine – against a blue screen (or were they green back then)? Red October is mostly helped by the recognizability of even its lowliest cast member, but everything I thought was invigorating the first time – and no, I don’t need anyone to remind me of my recent Star Trek review - is more along the lines of pleasantly silly now, clear to the better-bearded Scottish captain of a Russian sub, playing Henry Jones, playing old James Bond, playing that laughing drunk taking too much time on the sixteenth hole at St. Andrew’s with his sturdy trunk of a brogue.

Republicans in Drag

Arrowhead (1953)
directed by Charles Marquis Warren
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Proof that even those of us willing to defend (or ignore, or at least take with a grain of salt) the climate of casual racism in Old Hollywood productions as a “sign of the times” – because otherwise, what would we watch? - have our limits, in my case Charlton Heston dressing down a white actor painted to look like an Indian with all the choking rage of a white man raised by Indians to “cut a man’s throat from ear to ear.” Pitting Chuck as the Indian foundling against Jack Palance as a redskin brought up in Christian schools is laughable, then fun, and finally exhausting. The shit-eating grins on both actors faces more than buoys Palance’s costume changes from Little Lord Fauntleroy tie-and-derby jumpers to bare chest-and-vest wartime regalia, but in the movie’s push to be thematically aggressive, it’s too much like a bully picking on a nerd: brutish, obvious, and wrong.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Just Forget It

Remember the Daze (2007)
directed by Jess Manafort
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on Netflix On Demand

I haven’t been able to muster the appropriate sense of perplexity for director Jess Manafort's remake of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. Set ten years in the future with a new cast of less memorable teen-ish twenty-somethings, Remember the Daze is too harmless to be offensive. The kids do more drugs, to the pattern of the same inconsequential storms in teacups, wending through pretty North Carolina pines. The obvious question is “why,” but if I don’t have a problem with the same Judd Apatow plots recycled over and over again (and I don’t), I guess I can’t complain about a superficial retread of one of my favorite films – at least one done as obviously and sweetly as this. Some of the actors are Cosmo-cover famous now, as actors from ensemble pictures are wont to be, with time. But Jess Manafort won’t be, which, in the end, makes all the difference.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Man Who Robbed the Bank of Kashmir and Jammu

A Throw of Dice (1929)
directed by Franz Osten
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

History book movie-making, which is to say an exercise in the numbers of extras a Maharaja’s cooperation and a Maharaja’s millions would buy you at the end of the Jazz Age. The on-location fantasy I expected was somewhat subverted by the realities of this sort of privately-financed operation: lots of desperately poor, confused-looking men running through the dirt streets of an anonymous Indian town. No doubt the camera crew wasn’t allowed anywhere near the actual palace. The story – that is, the popular myth - is good enough for fire-side narration, but in 1929, any moviegoer worth his nickel admission would want considerably more in the way of on-screen spectacle, an idea that Hollywood men like Douglas Fairbanks implicitly understood and catered to. Those corrupt Indian kings of a corrupt British system could buy anything, but it takes more than money to out-dream the Dream Factory.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

What Drugs?

The Hangover (2009)
directed by Todd Phillips
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at Century 14 Downtown

As Syl said, there’s some credit due to Danny McBride for his patented Kenny Powers jerk-off kiss-off – nicely mimicked here by “lucky charm” Mr. Chow - but otherwise The Hangover is funny enough. What praise! The Mike Tyson sequence plays out better on paper, maybe because Todd Philips skews obsequious when he should go flat-out silly, but all of these comedies built around weddings tend to burn out towards the end. Even Animal House concludes with a nod to Senator and Mrs. Blutarsky, but John Landis lets chaos more or less demolish the city before wrapping up the post-scripts. The Hangover is more cautious and less imaginative, of course, and more single-mindedly fratty than sweeter romances like I Love You, Man, but I’m happy enough with a tiger snacking on the upholstery from my air-conditioned seat in the crowd.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Walt Bids Movita Casteneda Good Night

The Furies (1950)
directed by Anthony Mann
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Talky domestic melodramas – even set in New Mexico just as I grow wistful for the place – aren’t exactly my cup of western whisky (I know, I’m repetitive). How nice, then, that the scenery-chewing promise of Barbara Stanwyck vs. Walter Huston assumes a far more congenial aspect than the warring father/daughter plot could ever lead one to suspect. Back-and-forths between the two are played more like a screwball comedy than a boxing match, with enough breathing space between laugh-ins for that wholly unrelated wistfulness – greatly aided by beautiful black and white location shots - to set firmly in my eyes.

Better than the movie, though, is a visit to Walter Huston’s home that Criterion includes as an extra. Some plucky female reporter plays cat and mouse with the pot-bellied, trunk-attired Walt. This was as close as the audience got in 1950, I gather, and “seeing the home” means sitting poolside while Anjelica’s grandfather takes a dip. For those in the theater in love with Mr. Huston, his efforts to charm the pants off the reporter were no doubt appreciated as a better fantasy than the hulking, unapproachable sneer he grins through from The Furies’ very first frame.