Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Shared Not Torn Apart

La point-courte (1954)
directed by Agnès Varda
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

But since it is still September, and I can still see the last of summer's sun on my skin, if not exactly feel it anymore, then Agnès Varda's first feature, so full of ocean light as to recast the climate of my living room, is a fine goodbye to June, August, and July. There are two films at work in La point-courte, the first a documentary of fishing life in a Mediterranean village, the second a discussion between a husband and wife thinking of living apart. Like in Varda's other films, there is enough truth from sentence to sentence to comprise entire treatises on love, and done with all the delicacy of a breeze. The heart isn't to be trusted at the end of a relationship, she says, because the heart will never tell you when you've had enough. The heart wants more, always more, and so the mind or the body must rebel. That her heroine's mind does not is no compromise, but loveliness itself, a green sea in miniature.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Corners Rusting from the Sea

Quicksand (1950)
directed by Irving Pichel
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

You can pencil in September 28th for the dubious distinction of autumn feeling seasonal for the first time here in Pittsburgh, and since there are only a few days left before I start watching horror movies all month, Mickey Rooney playing the straight sap felt right for the night. Quicksand offers a nice succession of escalating crime committed even as the previous theft is exposed. And since Jeanne Cagney, all of 31, is a little too brittle to believably inspire Dan's spree, the screenplay lets him make that innocuous first wrong move on his own. In the end, though, the movie belongs less to its actions - lots of sucker moves by too many characters who should be smarter - and more to the old Santa Monica pier, where Peter Lorre, in a bow tie and a frown, moons over a drafty room of arcade games, watching his old love leave. Little more than a cameo, it's the scene that makes the film essential.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Movie Star Among Actors

My Favorite Year (1982)
directed by Richard Benjamin
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

As much as I hate to bat down a friend's recommendation, every moment of Errol Flynn charm that Peter O'Toole brings to My Favorite Year - and there are many, I'll admit - is completely overshadowed by Mark Linn-Baker's Benjy, a pushy, condescending egoist ripped from the mold of Woody Allen's most misogynistic and insulting protagonists. Benjy, unfortunately, shares every one of Alan Swann's scenes, and engages the aging actor with a personality so abrasive that even the most forgiving fan of Borscht Belt comedians would wince to sit through them. I have no doubt that working for a variety show like the fictional King Kaiser's in the 1950s was exhilarating and anecdotal, but Richard Benjamin's treatment of the world outside the studio - the relatives in Brooklyn, the everyday folks in the audience, the city's elite on their rooftop patios - is so dismissive that one aligns oneself, out of sheer self-preservation, against the entire production. Except Lawrence, of course, the least judgmental of drunks, and thoroughly out of place here.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

All the People Can't Be All Right All the Time

Dollhouse - Season 1 (2009)
created by Joss Whedon
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

While patiently enduring the infamous first five or six episodes of Dollhouse - which, I was warned, play like a bad police procedural - I realized that there's a difference between the great shows you watch alone and the mediocre shows you watch with other people. Like most of what I write in St. Peter's name, this is a half-baked theory I refuse to be held to, but Dollhouse wouldn't be nearly as enjoyable if I couldn't make fun of it half the time. Nor would I be curious about the second season if there wasn't something in the first 13 episodes that caught my attention.

I'll never like science fiction to the degree that I like fantasy, but the best science fiction incorporates the same supernatural element that makes fantasy so appealing: the eerie monolith in 2001, say. So, while no one in Dollhouse ever casts a spell, or opens a Hellmouth, or finds a ring that lets vampires go out in the sun, the show does use memory as both a tangible commodity and - as in "Epitaph One" - a ghost. One of the strengths of the supernatural as narrative device is letting plot lines skew towards old dark house horror a good part of the time, instead of the unsurprising parable of unchecked technology and power one would expect.

Inevitably, Helo will continue to curl his upper lip in frustration, and Eliza Dushku will try and try to top the Buffybot for glassy-eyed style. Dushku - no Smidge - will not succeed, and Dollhouse will not return after these next 13 episodes. An altogether manageable number for low expectations met, all in all.

Friday, September 25, 2009

John Williams, You Carry the Burden of Influence Lightly

The Indian Tomb (1959)
directed by Fritz Lang
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

For every cultural indelicacy committed by the visiting German couple - cursing, for example, the monotony of a ceiling fan, even as they ignore the Indian peasant who powers it from the floor behind them - The Indian Tomb is a better fantasy than its predecessor. Lurid talk of sexual purity between priests and princes; Shiva seduced by Debra Paget in a painted-on swimsuit; nightgowns off the shoulder in even the tamest goodnight bids: when it comes to sex in the movies today, there is nothing new under the sun. Parallel intrigues - those of the court and of the heart - keep the plot humming along, past the careless native sacrifices, the digs at Indian architecture and structural design, and well into the glamorous world of guilt-free Technicolor exoticism. Lang has some fairly complicated things to say about sacrifice and power, but not for the Germans, who all ride back to Europe in the opulence of a king's caravan.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Lacey Thornfield at the Gates of Dawn

The Middleman (2008)
created by Javier Grillo-Marxuach
rating: 4 out 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The Middleman, it must be said, is true to the spirit of Special Agent Cooper without being an imitation of him. Cooper preferred coffee to the Middleman's milk, and surely there's no comparison between those two dietary affectations. Milk, frankly, is flatter, and too obvious, and dear Cooper's terrors were altogether worse than any nightmare ABC Family could dream. Cooper, more than comics, westerns, or a dynamic Latina lead, is clearly the starting point here; still, it's enough just to state it, as the Middleman's bright, colorful, and silly Silver Age fantasy is sweetly and absurdly its own.

Better than the eponymous do-gooder played by Matt Keeslar *, though, are the twenty-something roommates who work with him (Natalie Morales) and fall for his straight-down-the-line charm (Brit Morgan). Wendy has a boyfriend of her own, but Lacey's smitten heart is just enough romantic yearning to spark the kind of quiet confessions and acts of noble unselfishness that I, for one, almost never see on television or in the movies anymore. And that, as all of you would guess by reading half a minute's worth of plot synopses on Wikipedia, is exactly why I love this show. You can check out Jack Kirby from the library, but sometimes you still need to hear and see someone tell you and show you the tale.

"Crack wise all you want about my Eisenhower jacket, Dubbie. But I wear it because it’s named after a man who led soldiers through harsh times against the darkest of evils. This jacket says something about... about me. The man I choose to be."

As James Coburn said when asked what Stella Adler meant by style, "Style."

* AKA Assistant District Attorney Josh Neff, vis a vis Whit Stillman, apparently a man ahead of his time.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Jennifer's Body (2009)
directed by Karyn Kusama
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at Loews Waterfront 22

I agree that there are too few famous female screenwriters and directors in Hollywood, and think it's worth noting how rare it is that a movie - and a horror movie at that - would be written and directed by two of them. Alas, Jennifer's Body leaves too many questions unanswered - was the fire a part of the ceremony? Shouldn't the bottomless whirlpool be more relevant to the plot somehow? Does Amanda Seyfried need glasses and teased hair to play a character named Needy? - and raises too few questions of its own. It isn't that Diablo Cody and Karyn Kusama owed it to anyone to surpass genre expectations; I just wish they had. As it is, Jennifer's Body sinks rather like a rock, with one touching love scene, one crane shot of a lake, and one slow smile - easily the movie's best moment - to leave something like a ripple behind.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Chandra the Magician

The Tiger of Eschnapur (1959)
directed by Fritz Lang
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Startling, among other reasons, for having been filmed in part at the Lake Palace in Udaipur, Fritz Lang's recently resuscitated Tiger also shares the same mythic grandeur and feel of Mario Bava's Hercules in the Haunted World, if not the same eeriness or Christopher Lee. But there are sets beneath India right out of The Beyond, fogged by the smoke of votive candles, lit in some supernatural blue; lepers as zombies, locked away, with dead soldiers at the door to guard the dying; a bare-breasted Shiva, tall as the cave, angered by the unfit suitor who hides, even now, behind her. Like too many films of the era, it relies on the novelty of a live tiger to instill fear instead of wonder, but a third act embrace - lovers reaching out for one another as a sandstorm covers their prone bodies - is romance right out of Godard.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Valkyrie's Soft Shoe

The Exterminating Angel (1962)
directed by Luis Buñuel
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

What's great about Buñuel is that he hated rock n' roll but still makes Simon of the Desert's rock club purgatory seem like nothing short of a good-time revelation. Simon, the desert aesthete, is far more at ease with a cigarette in his mouth and a cocktail in his hand than he is healing supplicants from the top of his lonely pillar. In The Exterminating Angel, servants who escape the home of their wealthy, trapped employers dress up for a night on the town, and check back in only when the liquor they've stolen is almost gone. Some of them probably get shot down in the mêlée that brings the picture to a close - nothing like federales gone wild with machine guns to encapsulate the absurdity of it all - but not before they, like us, have enjoyed a few moments of silence while the bishops and bourgeoisie are locked in the cathedral.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


Entourage - Season 3 (2006-2007)
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

It was nice to get back to Entourage after Mad Men, if only because I prefer the emotional rampages of Johnny Drama to the whinier protests of Angel Jr. No, just kidding; Entourage is a deeply repetitive, deeply stupid show that nonetheless keeps me laughing at the emotional equivalent of a simmer. And no matter how many times Eric acts like a little bitch, Vince throws that multi-million dollar grin, or Turtle and Drama berate each other over breakfast, I guess I'll still find myself already looking forward to the next season in the queue. No excuses, really, at least until I try on Angel-Connor-Don Draper slash fiction as a better waste of time.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Buy Curious

Mad Men - Season 1 (2007)
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

There's one thing at least that Mad Men shares with The Sopranos: they both condescend to gay characters. When Salvatore talks about a salesman pinning a particular tie to him for over an hour at the department store, he sounds like Tobias Fünke more than a closeted mid-century art department head. Why would someone like Sal sound any different from the rest of the guys at Sterling Cooper, instead of telegraphing his homosexuality to the oh-so-knowing audience every time he opens his mouth?

There was a moment, about halfway through the season, when that approach became pretty offensive - long before Joan's roommate enters the picture, too - and that might be the moment when the blush came off the rose. I think Mad Men is best when it's funny. Not "take back the night" funny - Betty in the backyard with a BB gun - but casually so: namely, Don Draper doing drugs with the bohemian crowd in Greenwich Village.

As Don, Jon Hamm is great in the role of a man of mysterious origins and contrived complicated lies, and he and the show's wonderful actors carry a great deal of Mad Men's appeal with truly lazy assists from the writers. When the scripts succeed, they do so by showing, which they don't do enough. But when Don jumps the gun on firing a junior exec, and Roger hires the kid back in a way that lets Don save face, I feel pretty close to some approximation of what, exactly, made Madison Avenue suits different from the average dressed-up bear.

Betty, of course, looks a lot like a Gil Elvgren girl on the lawn with her cigarette and gun, but January Jones sounds - in her cadence and delivery - more like a Whit Stillman heroine to me. One thing I like about Whit is that you never see his characters reciting exposition at a New York psychiatrist's office. Not that Mr. Metropolitan couldn't set his own sights a little higher these days (whatever you say about Gossip Girl's Manhattan carousel of a plotline, shrinks don't figure into it), but Mad Men should be as consistently good as its first episode's opening scene, which is great. Instead the show just falls, falls away.