Sunday, December 13, 2009

O Malcolm, Where Art Thou?

Breaking Bad - Season 1 (2008)
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Trailers for The Blind Side suggest a film that reinforces white hegemony in America, and while I'm certain that Vince Gilligan - the creator of Breaking Bad - would argue that his show is more profound than the usual cultural sticky wicket, he'd be wrong. My new criteria is to give TV series at least two seasons before lowering the axe; Breaking Bad's "sin of pride" theme might take me somewhere, but otherwise, the show is only good if you compare it to the average prime-time drama - like, I don't know, House or something. Why so cruel? Because these are the kinds of revelations that Gilligan wins Emmy nominations with:

(1) Americans can be hypocritical about their positions on drugs.
(2) Our society is unfair to minorities, drug addicts, and poor people.
(3) Rich people get better cancer treatment because they can afford it.
(4) Even cops that look like Herc from The Wire can have a sensitive side.
(5) Life is unfair.

Amazing, no? And don't get me started on how badly the show presents sex, unless (6) women like sex best when their husbands use it to take out their aggressions on someone. I do like the Albuquerque setting, but I don't roll my eyes as much looking at photographs I took while I lived there.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Squab Farm Squibs

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
directed by Wes Anderson
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at AMC Waterfront

Wes Anderson still clings so tightly to the reputation he won with Rushmore that he's choked the life out of every movie since; he's afraid to take the wrong step, and contrary to what you might have heard, Fantastic Mr. Fox is the same old bullshit. A stop-motion film seems like a new direction, but it isn't. As long as Jason Schwartzman and Noah Baumbach are star and co-writer, as long as the movie is about fathers and sons, Anderson isn't going to make his Pineapple Express. He doesn't have it in him.

But what a difference an ending can make. There was a moment, just before the credits, when I realized that Fantastic Mr. Fox was about to conclude, and it couldn't be where the book - which, admittedly, I haven't read - ended, because, from Dahl's perspective, the story wasn't over. The farmers have barely begun to fight; the supermarket can't feed the animals forever. Nothing's resolved, Fox hasn't changed, but we're sending him off at one of his very best moments, as the vulpes vulpes he'd like to be. I guess that sounds exactly like every movie that's preceded it, but at least Anderson finally lets it play out at a full 24 frames per second.

Incidentally, I agree with this sentiment, I loved the animation, and I think those lovely trains speeding by in the distance at night owe more than a little to Hayao Miyazaki. That's how I arrived at 3.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Snake River

Bronco Billy (1980)
directed by Clint Eastwood
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Honkytonk Man starred Clint Eastwood's son; Bronco Billy gets his girlfriend. And this is the zinger, from Bronco Billy (Clint) to Antoinette Lily (Sondra Locke), a newly minted bride on the run: “There must be 13 year-olds who are more woman than you are.”

What an old-fashioned charmer.

Eastwood tries to make amends for the movie's title sequence ballad "Cowboys and Clowns" by inviting Merle Haggard to play a set at an Idaho bar. It's a nice respite for honest citizens - like the people you find out west - until the plot needs some country hicks to attempt a rape on Ms. Lily, at which point those otherwise decent Boise patrons are only too happy to oblige. Billy saves the day, of course, with promises of spankings, public insults, and the occasional stern threat to come.

But he loves her, I guess, about as much as Clint probably loved Sondra. So it doesn’t matter that Eastwood actually directs a gentle, melancholy fantasy made beautiful by a great cinematographer. It doesn't matter that a scene in which a troupe of Wild West showmen stages a real-life train robbery is a great movie on its own. It doesn't matter because that creepy misogynistic undercurrent just keeps rolling, rolling along. The re-assessment of Unforgiven begins now.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Your New "Riding the Bus in Los Angeles" Spectacular

Smiley Face (2007)
directed by Gregg Araki
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

There's an odor of privilege to Smiley Face, as if no one involved in the production had to worry about finding the finances to make a movie in the city with friends. The smaller vignettes should be funnier, the random encounters with people on the street warmer, and the general sense of worthiness in an average day more pronounced. I mean, the apartment in Half Baked might be a mess, but at least it's colorful.

Jane F., née Anna Farris - who else? - lives almost anonymously, in a bedroom with white paint and nothing on the walls, nothing in the fridge, and very little to do. But someone who likes drugs as much as Jane does, and for all the right reasons, would be more of a gas to be around. She wouldn't be sad, or pathetic; she'd be great. Anna Farris is a great, funny actress, who makes the most of a role that doesn't really ask her to do anything but mug. I was told that Smiley Face was Half Baked for girls, but let's be honest - Half Baked is for everybody. Expect a lot less and you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Bell at the End of His String

Honkytonk Man (1982)
directed by Clint Eastwood
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

What do you do with a director like Clint Eastwood, whose tastes run so superficially close to your own – country music, Westerns, the great dream of America – but who skews into such strange territory as to make you question every one of them? With Clyde the orangutan, Eastwood imagined that he liked nothing better than never taking himself too seriously. His ensuing career suggests just the opposite, but in Honkytonk Man, in the midst of a grandfather’s * genuinely moving Dust Bowl reminiscences, Clint – sitting in a big wooden tub - faces off with an angry bull. The romance is true, but the scene is corny, irreverent, and funny: classic Clint.

But then there’s the underage female runaway who Clint’s character may or may not sleep with somewhere along the road. He admires her “brass” and then dies of TB. In the movie’s closing seconds, we learn that, yes, that girl is pregnant after all, and maybe that’s just how people did things back then, because that’s America. Or something. Which is why Eastwood’s brand of conservatism has never been as forgivable to me as Charlton Heston's was, or even John Wayne's. It's just too sleazy.

* "James Stewart was first choice for the role of Grandpa but he was reportedly too ill to perform." In other words, you were 4 years past Gentleman Jim's sell-by date, Clint. The General had already left the building.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Sentimental Criminal

Burn Notice - Season 1 (2007)
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats

Burn Notice - Season 2 (2008-2009)
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

If Entourage is the quintessential two-cravat production, Burn Notice might be the template for three. I don’t know that I’ve ever watched a popular TV show at the time it aired – Seinfeld and The Simpsons, two comedies, are probably as close as I got, and that was in high school – but Burn Notice suggests what I have, and haven’t, been missing. For one thing, there aren’t too many plot arcs to keep track of. Two, in fact: the case of the week and Michael’s ongoing efforts to get to the bottom of his professional sabotage.

I can’t be the only one who finds Michael, Sam, and Fiona’s time around a table of Cuban food the best thing about the show. Little details, like the actors who play Fiona and Michael being the same age, are sweet and commendable, and Sam is the sort of soupy, pleasant alcoholic we pretend to recognize in our own extended families. The weekly “gimmick,” wherein Michael outdoes MacGyver for modifications of found household objects, is more tech-oriented than my tastes, but it wouldn’t be the ratings success it is without something for everyone, right?

More importantly, with these first few December frosts, I appreciate a Miami-based spy show. I started with Burn Notice instead of Miami Vice because there are fewer episodes of Burn Notice to catch up on. It even got me thinking that I’m ready to watch Breaking Bad and trade up from Florida sun to the New Mexico light of my memories. The plan might backfire – seeing the appearance of an around-the-corner Albuquerque hamburger stand in Sunshine Cleaning depressed me for a week – but the past doesn’t hurt any less for trying to forget it. Michael and Fiona would sympathize, and that’s why the show’s so good.

Switzerland by Way of the Northwest Passage

Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer (2007)
directed by Jon Knautz
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Any time I think Americans take the cake for bigotry, I watch a foreign film. Intentions aside (a funny throwback to King Kong?), what could possibly explain the bookends to this otherwise harmless Canadian monster story? Black men and women in jungle attire, screaming at a cyclops in the woods? Everyone in a panic - frothing, worthless fear - except for the lone white interloper, his childhood guilt absolved at last? Could the stereotypes be any worse?

No. If someone hadn't recommended Jack Brooks, I never would have made it to the title. The rest of the movie isn't terrible, in a TV pilot sort of way, and yes, the low-budget effects are coherent and fun, but if anyone (I guess Rick Moranis is the only person I can think of) ever tells you "no one does humor like the Canadians," be grateful you live in the US of A.