Monday, August 31, 2009

Eye On the Clock, the Ground, the Sky

Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)
directed by George Clooney
rating: 5 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

As most of you know, I spend an embarrassing amount of time reading celebrity gossip, and one of my constants in the world of movie stars - my rock, if you will - is George Clooney's abiding love for cocktail waitresses. They're pretty, not always particularly bright, but inevitably, one assumes, fun. Good Night, and Good Luck is as light on its feet as its director at a bar, reasonable when it could be didactic, and a class act all the way. Watching it again, and impressed as ever with the tempo, edits, and fades, I paid more attention to Ray Wise's Don Hollenbeck. What I first took to be a tribute to the very personal price men paid under McCarthyism, I now suspect is something of a gibe at the Keith Olbermanns of the world: echo chambers don't bring down men like McCarthy; reporters do. *

* Maybe that's anachronistic, since Olbermann, so far as I can tell, ripped his whole pathetic shtick from Good Night, and Good Luck. But that's like blaming Jaws for your least favorite summer blockbuster.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

This One Brings Us Up to Date

The Last Days of Disco (1998)
directed by Whit Stillman
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

In college, I thought of The Last Days of Disco as the lesser of Whit Stillman’s three films. The wide-eyed innocence of his protagonists in Metropolitan and even Barcelona became the party-list cynicism of Kate Beckinsale’s Charlotte and the advertising underhandedness of Mackenzie Astin's Jimmy. Chris Eigeman had graduated from an affectionate wit to trolling for lines of coke in a bathroom stall, and any movie with Chloë Sevigny approached “self-regarding” like a rocket.

But my memory is a pulpit of lies, and Stillman’s decency towards a cast of characters as unsure of their place in the world as ever endures with its open-heartedness intact. As 20s pass into 30s, Stillman’s gentle inquiries into adulthood come, even more than in Barcelona, with a clearer appreciation of the role of sex. Something the cast of Metropolitan could talk about in the comfort of group society get-togethers is much more immediate to characters like Alice, who does her best to play along and suffers disproportionately to the spirit of her engagement.

She finds happiness, of course, because Stillman wants her to, but he is equally judicious with even her most insincere friends, wishing them each the best because, Stillman might argue, that’s the very least you can do for someone in this world. The director’s love of disco isn’t the bourgeoisie back rub it would seem, because Stillman’s movies really aren’t about yuppies at all. They’re really not, and if I could summarize The Last Days of Disco in a single take, it would be one of several tracking shots through that beautiful movie theater set of a nightclub, catching the faces of men and women from a laundry list of New York economic classes; occupations; sexual preferences; and practitioners of style; dancing when they’re not talking, talking when they’re not dancing, trying to temper and make sense of the city and life outside.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Stars Like Onions Hanging to Dry

The Milky Way (1969)
directed by Luis Buñuel
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The charge against religion in Buñuel’s films is not necessarily hypocrisy, but the short-sightedness of men’s convictions to righteousness, which never transcend the didactic to accomplish anything of measurable worth. Here, the time-traveling narrative addresses specific Catholic claims of heresy through the ages - benchmarks of the ridiculous things that men do to men - and although it should all be too much, Buñuel is as light as a bird. The bottom line for the movie’s two protagonists, men without shoes or a bite to eat, is a conversation they share as they approach the beautiful vista of La Concha de San Sebastian in Spain:

“Give me the Riviera any day.”
“Ever been there?”
“No, but it’s probably better.”
“All these places are for people with cash.”

Ever hungry, surrounded by mysteries, the two men travel on.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

David McCullough's Frylock

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters (2007)
directed by Matt Maiellaro & Dave Willis
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The diabolical frenzy that constitutes an episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force has come at me like the occasional back-alley stick-up through the years. Which is to say, unexpectedly, but not unwelcome in a life open to a little adventure (ha again). I don’t have cable, and can therefore sympathize with the grungy New Jersey existence of Master Shake and crew, while still not really watching them all that much.

I rely on friends who love Aqua Teen to show me Aqua Teen, and I missed the boat when the movie came to town. If anything, by making room for the series’ rogues gallery of intergalactic visitors, mad scientists, and grumpy Carls-next-door, the movie finds a kind of rhythm in its introductions and rising action that results in a nicely paced 80-minute feature. Meaning I might be wrong about not being able to handle whole seasons at a time on the miracle of DVD.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Best in the Business

Inglourious Basterds (2009)
directed by Quentin Tarantino
rating: 5 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at Loews Waterfront 22

One way to articulate deprivation - in this case, of nourishment, sustenance, and indulgence - is in excruciating detail, akin to the starvation narrative of Knut Hamsen's Hunger. Most movies about war take this first route, reiterating the day-to-day sacrifices of ordinary citizens as a means of reminding us how awful it was in France under the Germans. But Quentin deserves as much credit for getting great performances out of pretty faces as he does for discovering an unknown German to play Hans Landa. Mélanie Laurent's involuntary reaction to eating whipped cream and sugary streusel for the first time since the war began - the unguarded expression of joy on her face in spite of her loathing for the monsters who provide the meal - says all you need to know about the things she's gone without.

There are so many wonderful details - that Laurent's character walks barefoot in the projection room, for one - and so little bloody mayhem, relative to everyone's expectations. I sit closer to movie screens than I used to; I like for the image to stretch all the way to the corners of my eyes. Everything about Inglourious Basterds, be it Brad Pitt, a basement tavern, or the love between Emmanuelle and Marcel, was bigger than even the first-run screen could manage, and reminder after reminder of the lovely truth that Quentin Tarantino has still not let me down. I hope he makes movies forever.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

One Should Be Able to Put it Better

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967)
directed by Jean-Luc Godard
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The argument against Godard is what, exactly? That, with time, he was more and more pretentious, condescending, reductive, and glib? As evidenced by a line like, "If you can't afford LSD, try color TV," ha ha.

I agree, sometimes, but isn't it because I'm far more jaded than Godard or any of his contemporaries could imagine in 1967? My generation was raised with a cynicism towards government and human nature that our parents (or grandparents!), even at their most political, barely aspired to. And anyway, so superficial a reading of Godard's improvisational impulses ignores the comedy in moments like young Christophe's dream.

"Suddenly one of the twins went towards the other," Christophe tells his mother, "and they became one person. And then I realized that these two people were North and South Vietnam being united." Do critics take that line at face value? It's a preposterous line spoken by a goofy-looking kid. When Juliette, Christophe's mother and the heroine of 2 or 3 Things, dreams, she wakes up reassured or else afraid. She has no answers, no solutions, but she tries.

I remember not liking Marina Vlady as Juliette the first time, but I think it was only because she isn't Anna Karina. But Vlady is remarkable, and far more appropriate for the brave, pensive Juliette than Karina and all her exuberance would have been. For the first time, really, this is a Godard movie that isn't just a fantasy, and so the poetry and the thoughtfulness he extracts from the Paris he says he fears are a resolute homage to the bravery of women in the modern world.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Buñuel Rock Band

Simon of the Desert (1965)
directed by Luis Buñuel
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

After Simón pulls a pipe in a New York nightclub, time runs out on any actor or extra flashing a funnier mug. The game, then, is to pick your favorite incarnation of Silvia Pinal’s bored, patient devil. For my money, nothing beats a bearded Jesus made up in Grecian locks, maybe because Pinal was really asked to punt a lamb (like soccer, it’s all in where one puts one’s foot), or maybe because she looks a lot like Cameron Stewart’s She-Beard. I like to think that Seaguy and Grant Morrison are big Buñuel fans, but who knows. Although, at 45 minutes for all of Simon, what acolyte doesn’t have the time to become a believer?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Drowned in the Rio Grande

Ponyo (2008)
directed by Hayao Miyazaki
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at Loews Waterfront 22

Ponyo might be my least favorite of Miyazaki’s movies, but it serves as a nice reminder of things the director and his team of artists do well, even at their least focused. Nature is often strange – often unsettling, often ugly – and the ocean very possibly the strangest of the planet’s spaces, but nature has its patterns, its graces, and its beauty, and what is wonderful in the world is inseparable from what is horrifying in it. It is a moral even-handedness that goes beyond tolerance towards something closer to acceptance – a generous, benevolent gaze that is, truly, unlike anything else in animation. There are no villains in Miyazaki’s movies, and anything like “pure” good exists only in children, who have not yet experienced the hardships of the world. They will, and learn their tolerance in turn. As something tangible, too– the painting on the screen – Ponyo is a marvel, a world of currents and waves and wind, full of so much life from frame to frame that you can’t sit close enough to the screen.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Kiss Me I’m Polish

Made in U.S.A. (1966)
directed by Jean-Luc Godard
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at the Melwood Screening Room

You would want Godard to really love movies enough not to break off his marriage to Anna Karina by embarrassing her in their last collaboration. He seems like a man capable of true cheapness with women, and what better homage than a Big Sleep plotline to kill his wife off with a whimper? But of course Godard loves movies, so it’s to his credit that even at the moment of his separation from my favorite of movie muses, Godard loved Anna Karina more. Give me any one of the half-serious eyeliner close-ups in Made in U. S. A. over anything else in Paris, from brie to Eric Rohmer. Not that it isn’t tedious, too, but Made in U. S. A. is the goodbye that everyone always wishes he’d said, more poignant for existing at all than the content of its words, and nothing if not for the girl it belongs to.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Art of the Comanche Cat-Call

The Law and Jake Wade (1958)
directed by John Sturges
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Since moving to Pittsburgh, I’ve debated whether watching movies set in a geography I didn’t want to leave behind will serve as some kind of solace, or slowly but inevitably drive me insane. Jake Wade employs the ever-unhinged Richard Widmark to hold Robert Taylor at gunpoint across a Cinemascope landscape so ruddy and so blue that the wandering narrative of soured loyalties – it would have been better, and half as long, if Widmark’s gang wasn’t there at all – can’t help but be dwarfed by its surroundings. If nothing else, this is an early treatment of the heart of the Pat Garrett story – abandoning one’s criminal friends to fight for law and order - but too moralistic and too self-righteous to raise more questions than it ham-fistedly answers.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Like the Cobblestone Stretch of the Tour de France

The Aristocats (1970)
directed by Wolfgang Reitherman
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Unlike in True Blood, the appearance of a Southern accent in The Aristocats is both completely nonsensical and comfortably right at home. Give me yokel bloodhounds on the outskirts of Paris over shifty shape-shifting swamp collies any day. As for plot, keep it simple, like a single mother and her kids trying to make it back into town. There’s more drama inside the heads of people shopping for groceries than the fantastical wastes of time that animators sometimes pursue, and Chevalier singing about cats is far more age-appropriate than Chevalier pining after “little girls” in Gigi. I have to admit, Duchess as divorcée (they certainly never mention “widow”) surprised me, even if her old-time villains, sympathetic all, delightedly did not.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Gran Torino (2008)
directed by Clint Eastwood
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Clint Eastwood has famously and recently bemoaned our inability, as a culture, to tolerate/stomach an innocent joke at the expense of Rabbis, Mexicans, and Polacks, and Gran Torino, it seems, is the ever over-praised director’s explication and defense of that small, silly pronouncement. Clint isn’t racist – not really – because a hard-working family of Hmong immigrants can change his mind about the direction of an economically destitute Michigan factory town. Walt treats his Hmongs like people, so if he likes to unwind with an off-color remark, then it’s cultural – a little ball-busting, like bantering with his barber – and nothing personal.

I prefer screenwriter Nick Schenk's MO: write lines that sound great when Dirty Harry speaks them. My problem with Gran Torino isn’t Clint’s grouchy conservatism – which is what it is – but two minutes at the end of the movie that show the reading of Kowalski’s will. In it, Walt leaves his prized 1972 Gran Torino to the Hmong teenager he took under his wing. Well and good, except for a caveat attached to the bequest: that the kid not dress the car up with new decals and spoilers, like immigrant kids are wont to do. Intended as one last word from Walt the honest joker – a bit of belligerence that everyone can laugh at – the will sounds oddly out of place.

The truth is, Walt the insular Korean War veteran wouldn’t be so attuned to the slang, the slurs, and the fashion statements of the current crop of Michigan street gangs. Which means, to me, that someone else’s anger at spoilers, hatchbacks, and rims can’t help but bleed onto the celluloid a little. Eastwood’s over-bearing points about violence exhausted, he can’t resist one last spittle-flecked expression of outrage at the sort of people ruining his little corner of the Pacific Coast Highway near Carmel. Pretty petty.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

It’s a Great Time to Be Silver

Julie and Julia (2009)
directed by Nora Ephron
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at the Manor Theatre

Praising what I liked in Julie and Julia brings to mind a bulletin board filled with index cards that must have hung in Nora Ephron’s office last fall. A tasteful depiction of sexual attraction in a middle-aged couple? Check. No sordidness to cheapen a story intended to be as light as air? Ditto. A few off-color jokes to make the 75 year-old target audience feel 56 again? I could go on forever, but Elizabeth and I were the only people in a crowded matinee theater (old people are as cheap as ever) under the age of 60. And that, for all the movie’s undeniable charms, is all you need to know.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Duck Tales

Drillbit Taylor (2008)
directed by Steven Brill
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

How fortuitous, then, that I’d thought ahead with regards to the Netflix queue for the need for a little relief, post-Lonesome Dove (honestly, what a depressing show). I started on Dr. Illbit the same night, and finished it the next day, my mind considerably lightened by the coast of California, the coast of Owen Wilson’s nose, and the wide shore of dear Danny McBride’s oceanic empathy. As the lone surviving document at the periphery of the dissolution of Owen’s relationship with Kate Hudson, Drillbit has all the reassurances you hope that Owen found in Woody Harrelson’s South American hideaways, plus kids – the only real heroes in movies – playing a kid’s best role.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Tintype Gallows, Plains, & Steers

Lonesome Dove (1989)
directed by Simon Wincer
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The heart of Lonesome Dove, and its most important role, belongs to Anjelica Huston and to her character, Clara. The first half of the miniseries is just the sort of adventure that McMurtry’s novel is supposed to reconsider: the emotional rejuvenation of a small outfit of long-retired Texas Rangers upon their decision to take the first herd of cattle into Montana. Everyone, of course, remembers Robert Duvall’s turn as Gus at the expense of everyone else. People like my parents praise each role equally, but at the end of the day, it’s lines like “You pigs get” that they quote each time they remember them. Parents love Lonesome Dove, I guess because it makes them think that television used to be better than it is - which is, of course, the same tired argument that actors like Robert Duvall make every time they put on a pair of cowboy boots for this year’s Broken Trail.

I’m convinced that McMurtry couldn’t resist that first half of his story – the jokes at the expense of Mexican cooks, the raids across the border to steal horses – and the best proof is Diane Lane’s pretty, unhappy, oft-abused Lorena. “Lori darling,” of course, is the line my parents like most, because it’s the line that Gus gets to say at his moment of great heroism. But Lori is really just shorthand for who Gus was, which, by the second half of the movie, is more or less irrelevant. It becomes irrelevant when Gus is reunited with Clara, the woman he loved most in what we assume was a lifetime of great and plentiful loves.

There is nothing that Lorena reflects in her hopeless, childlike devotion to Gus that Huston does not reflect in her brief, barbed words towards the same man, or in her carriage with her children and in her house, and in her few moments of solitude when no one but her husband is at home. Gus broke Clara’s heart, and he and she have lived with that – and made lives full of sadness and joy apart from each other - for decades. The lesson of Lonesome Dove is how impossible it is to live that hurt down: over time, our cruelties and mistakes will repeat themselves, and pile up at a pace to equal the ways in which we try to be better and to learn. We live with our choices, again and again, long past the point of believing we can’t endure them any longer - until, at last, we can’t.