Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Henry, Hammy, Swoons

The Moon's Our Home (1936)
directed by William A. Seiter
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Cinefile

Henry Fonda, as usual, plays a snob, but this time he’s at least an adventurous one – Peter Matthiessen, more or less, mailing his manuscripts to New York from dusty zip codes overseas. Margaret Sullavan is both an heiress and an actor, and wonderful at winning over minions, audiences, and lovers with her fury. The movie lays miles of groundwork for the impending feud between these self-involved entertainers but doesn't take full advantage of Sullavan’s sense of independence.

Yes, they quarrel and even ski, but Sullavan's rampages at the beginning of the film are a lot funnier than her anger at the end of it (except for the scene where she tries to hit Fonda with a lamp). She surrenders too soon, and this being the 30s, the sacrifice demanded of her is steep. LA sun and Egyptian princes are offered at the altar of Fonda’s New York kitchen, where presumably she can count their money at the breakfast table, wash the dishes afterwards, and quietly grow old. But like the couple’s real-life marriage, there's no reason to think the situation will stick, and back to California we’ll go.

Duck Duck Strother

Pocket Money (1972)
directed by Stuart Rosenberg
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Cinefile

The breakout performance of this past week isn’t Alan Arkin’s impression of Kermit-voiced Texan Terrence Malick, as you’d expect, but the late, great Strother Martin sweet-talking Mr. Newman-O’s into a horse swap south of the border. I guess I first heard Martin the day I brought home a cassette copy of Use Your Illusion II from Target. “What we've got here,” he begins, as Slash and Izzy warm up behind him, “is failure to communicate.” In high school I watched Cool Hand Luke and put a pair of glasses and a hat to the voice; the movie didn’t make the impression on me that “Civil War” did.

Wouldn’t you know it, it took a second Malick-penned comedy to remind me that this funny, casually impatient shrub refusing to get Paul Newman and Lee Marvin the $500 he promised was the very same manic sidekick who played crazy to Lee Van Cleef’s straight man routine in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. And here brother Strother was again, finally in lights, admonishing his small-time schemers to just keep the noise down if they’ve got some sort of complaint to file. He’ll never be anonymous again.

As for Pocket Money, Paul Newman finally succeeds at suggesting, if not embodying, how you like to think of him in real life, playing dumb and drinking beers. But the director isn’t in on the joke, and his frames and his cuts never quite sync with the drifting conversations. Even so, manhandled as it is by an A-list crew, Malick’s screenplay is a great goodwill ambassador for sun-soaked movie getaways, much kinder to his legacy than he probably believes. Don’t forget the laughs that raised you.

A Town that has the Dodgers Doesn't Need a Football Team

Two-Minute Warning (1976)
directed by Larry Peerce
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Cinefile

In earlier decades, Heston’s name would still be above the title, but you wouldn’t need to see the poster to know it. If some whacko with a rifle takes position behind the scoreboard of a crowded football stadium, Chuck’s the man who brings him in. But people were paranoid in 1976 and cocaine was a popular drug. So not only does the screenwriter make Heston a minor law enforcement official in a splintered cast of about two dozen, but the director becomes so obsessed with the chaos a panic fifty-thousand strong might inspire that not one potential sniper victim is spared. When the shooting starts, it doesn’t stop. The mood is desolate and the devastation startling; people turn on each other like zombies. I’m not a survivalist, so the movie doesn’t exploit my fears, but I’m glad that survivalists tend to live in rural places, far from the cities I love.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Long Distance Sun

Deadhead Miles (1972)
directed by Vernon Zimmerman
rating: 5 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Cinefile

Days of Heaven was important to me at eighteen because it was beautiful and its landscapes limitless and because of the inarticulateness and unwashed handsomeness of Sam Shepard’s farmer. Terrence Malick was a Texan, but no place in Texas really looked like that, so the movie was made in Alberta. Later, I watched Badlands and looked for the characteristics I admired in Days of Heaven. I found them, but in doing so, I missed the humor in Badlands. The screenplay is wry but gentle; Days of Heaven, by comparison, is humorless.

Terrence Malick never directed a movie half as good as the movie he wrote for his friend Vernon Zimmerman. Malick lived in the hills of LA in the early 70s and ran around with guys like Warren Oates (well, at least a little). When someone tells you that screwball comedies only exist in black and white, show them Deadhead Miles.

That isn’t quite right; Deadhead Miles is gentle, but there’s a rhythm to its humor. In the opening scene, Alan Arkin and his buddies steal a big rig, and then Arkin steals it again. A chop shop repaints and conceals the details, and the next 90 minutes are open road and blue skies. More jokes occur with the eighteen-wheeler in low gears than high gears.

Most road movies are buddy movies, but Arkin, in spite of the people he runs into, is alone. The other characters don’t really react to his ramblings and jokes, so finally it’s up to the audience to be the companion Arkin never finds. GTO from Two-Lane Blacktop might be a good reference point, but the desperation in Rudy Wurlitzer’s screenplay is a little too... grounded, I guess, for Deadhead Miles. Arkin is frayed but not torn. He’s more independent than GTO, more watchful, and burdened by fewer generational dissatisfactions.

Police encounters aren’t funny in Two-Lane Blacktop, but in Deadhead Miles, there’s nothing cops can do to threaten Alan Arkin. His mind is miles ahead. When highway patrolmen tell him to lose some weight from his trailer, Arkin shoves the truck into reverse and dumps contents at random onto the pavement. Zimmerman shot the movie in New Mexico and Knoxville and put Dave Dudley and that big Peterbilt engine on the soundtrack. People on IMDB generally like the eighteen-wheeler but not the film, but as of this moment, there are few movies I love more.

Cormac McCarthy lived in Tennessee in 1971; whatever was in the water that made Child of God the perfect funny novel got brewed into coffee for the cast and crew of Deadhead Miles. Unreleased in theaters or on video but broadcast in the 80s on A&E, it exists now in copies of copies but also in nine parts on YouTube. As a kid I got bored on car trips – even the magnificent ones - but I don’t now. I think of roads when I’m not driving, and the dreams I dream look just like Deadhead Miles.

Crazy Glaze

Savage Dawn (1985)
directed by Simon Nuchtern
rating: 1 out of 5 cravats
on DVD at Syl's

Well, they can’t all be Near Dark or Aliens, and I respect Lance Henriksen’s usual cadaver-thin, flint-eyed commitment to every role he signs on for, even one as bad as this. It’s easy to imagine what went through his head – “I can block my own fight scenes and ride my own bike” – and I hope it paid for a kiln as heavy as a tank and no plastic anywhere on it. The TV transfer on this DVD only underscores the cheapness of the production, from listless direction to on-the-spot screenplay, but heck, if Savage Dawn can get made in Hollywood, anything can. That’s inspirational.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Mysterious Mister Fathoms

Island of Lost Souls (1932)
directed by Erle C. Kenton
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on VHS from Cinefile Video

I can’t imagine the literary source material for Island of Lost Souls is as phantasmagorical as this movie. The story couldn’t possibly be as frightening, because those are men with real deformities beside Bela Lugosi in the mob scenes. They almost look as if they’ve wandered onto the set, or worse, that it isn’t a set at all. Maybe the rumors that it was filmed on Catalina Island are true. The sweat on Charles Laughton’s collar is real enough, and the fecundity of the location glorified in its wet, earthy plant life.

One of the rewards in watching early studio pictures is discovering the moments when the excess and possibilities inherent in a modern system of moviemaking got out of hand. Things show up in old films that shouldn’t have seen the light of day, evidence of the perversity brought on by money and desperation. The moments are casual and often in transitional scenes. In Chandu the Magician, for example – a matinee adventure film released the same year as Lost Souls - June Lang is auctioned off to a group of turban-clad merchants; ostensibly the scene exists just so Chandu can rescue her, but the lasciviousness of the camera’s eye on Lang’s exposed body says a great deal more about Hollywood than Arabian Nights.

Island of Lost Souls festers in the impression that someone has lost control. And Dr. Moreau, the tinker of monstrosities, does, as the earth cracks around him with whispers of “abomination” in the bubbling swamps. It is hair-raising and engrossing – savage science fiction. Beautiful, too, with feathered close-ups that remind me of ferrotypes. But too wild and too horrible, in the end, since Lugosi is better remembered for the more recognizably European Dracula than Laughton is for this inglorious lifelike creation. Kathleen Burke, poor thing, is barely remembered at all.

Be Kind, O Ghost

The Uninvited (1944)
directed by Lewis Allen
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on VHS from Cinefile Video

There is much in common between the mood of stormy spring days and windy October ones, and late February rain is better than dead of winter snow for haunted house tales. Haunted houses creak and moan and sit on bluffs beside the sea. Rain through real-life open windows gives shape and pattern to the silences that interrupt the sleep of The Uninvited's stars. When the film was done, I slept on a sofa beside the television and watched night and a storm pass through the city.

The protagonists of the story, a brother and sister, are modern sorts, practical and unbelieving. When they are at last convinced a spirit roams their halls and lawn, they conjure up the apparition and try to send her on. The ghost, when she is seen, is a trick of light, hollow-eyed and spectral. But more often than not, she is wind and cold air only, nearly unnoticed at the back of the neck but for a pale shiver at the throat.

And that is how it goes as the trees begin to bud and there is enough dampness near the nightstand to keep a fire in the hearth, if you have one. A house comes back to life again, shakes off the snow and sags with rain. Movies fill the air.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Your Tricks with Fruit / Were Kind of Cute

Running Out of Luck (1986)
directed by Julien Temple
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Cinefile Video

In 1985, Mick Jagger sat down with Rolling Stone and had this to say about his forthcoming solo record She’s the Boss:

“How do you write a song? I don’t know. It comes out, and it’s a miracle, really. It just comes out, and you have these visual images, and you think, well, let’s carry them a little bit further and make them a little more cinematic or something.

“You know, ‘Lucky in Love’ and ‘Running Out of Luck?’ Before I would maybe have had to change it: ‘Oh, I can’t have two songs with luck.’ I use that, so that becomes a kind of slightly thematic thing, if I want to use that for a video.”

Columbia Records, or perhaps Mick himself, put the money where his mouth was and funded, not just a video, but a movie. Running Out of Luck is She’s the Boss in the flesh, the round, the nude. Mick and Jerry Hall travel to South America together, where Mick is kidnapped and put to work on a banana plantation. As he tries to get back to civilization, Ms. Hall returns to London, wears fur coats and lingerie, and takes up the life of an assassin.

What begins as overindulgence – Dennis Hopper shouting stage directions while Mick waltzes with drag queens - never really gives up on its commitment to entertain the fans. Mick can’t stop moving, and aside from participating in what is possibly the scariest, most gratuitous sex scene ever filmed, he pulls off the trick completely. Rock stars as a rule won’t make themselves the butts of jokes, but Mick is more than happy to, so long as he’s still a rock star in the end. It’s better proof than the music why Mick Jagger the celebrity has been the center of attention so successfully for so long.

And it’s pretty great. The last thing you’d expect to win over the room is now essential viewing for boys and girls and followers of fashion.

Ego Trip as Weekend Getaway

Cobra (1986)
directed by George P. Cosmatos
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Cinefile Video

The issue of responsibility for Americans’ negligence of Vietnam veterans is complicated, so First Blood was a movie that sympathetic action fans of all political stripes could enjoy. Cobra articulates a decidedly more conservative worldview – Dirty Harry would be proud – but that’s no reason not to watch. Proto-fascist law enforcement officers might be a little heavy-handed for your everyday criminals, like the friendly Latinos who make the mistake of usurping Sly’s parking space near the boardwalk, but all a good screenwriter needs to do is gift those crazy cops the right sort of nihilistic homicidal opponents to chain-fight in a foundry.

One exchange in particular, between Stallone and then-girlfriend Brigitte Nielsen, spells out the problem facing John Grisham every time he goes to work. Men like Stallone catch the bad guys, but lawyers like Matt Damon can’t wait to set them free.

“Why can’t we lock them up forever?” asks Ingrid the model.

“Tell it to the judge,” Marion “Cobra” Cobretti replies.

And I’m not laying this on as thick as it sounds, either. Cobra has a sense of humor, and that’s good enough for me. When a member of Night Stalker’s gang threatens to blow up a grocery store, Cobretti shrugs in his skin-tight T. “That’s okay,” he mumbles. “I don’t shop here.”

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Wrong Pair of Crying Eyes

Shutter Island (2010)
directed by Martin Scorsese
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at the Vista

If Leonardo DiCaprio is the actor that late-career Scorsese deserves, he’s equally welcome to Massachusetts as his end-of-life New York. Boston, the pirates liked to say, was the Puritan backwater to New York City’s night life, and now that Mr. Mean Streets has retreated completely into the mists of his nostalgia, he can live like Leo’s G-Man, dreaming of Laura but directing Shutter Island. Nevermind Dennis Lehane’s second-rate story (watch the trailer and you’ve read it) or the inexcusable use of CGI. Forget about Mark Ruffalo lamely grimacing and the typecast glasses on old Death’s nose.

If it’s Michelle Williams who haunts DiCaprio’s nightmares, why is the only moment of sexual tension in the whole movie sparked by Emily Mortimer’s brief turn as a mother who killed her kids and misses, really misses, her man? The guards are wary of her; there are four men in the room. She shrinks from them at first, but wears red make-up on her lips and moves closer to the detective, his overcoat heavy in the salt sea air. The best movie cops would drown her children themselves just for a kiss at that moment, and there’s a beating heart in that scene that feels as warm beneath the palm as Out of the Past to me. But Scorsese lets it pass, as if this beauty in a thin patient’s shift is the bald witch from the beginning, cackling at the plants on the lawn.

Ever Seen a Real Rose, Hallie?

Speed (1936)
directed by Edwin L. Marin
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on TCM at Syl's

When it’s great, it’s a “gem,” so Speed is a “quickie.” Half promotional documentary for domestic auto factories, half whiny salvo from Gentleman Jim's Hugh Grant head of hair, the movie wanders too much for its running time but eventually settles on a speed race across Utah salt flats to resolve its affairs of the heart. That would be the love between an irate test driver and the president’s daughter, a woman inexplicably receptive to the simultaneous advances of a real asshole of a company engineer. Jimmy Stewart spends most of his time complaining about the “pencil pushers” who have it in for “grease monkeys” like himself, but he’s such a grump about it that it’s difficult to sympathize. In the end, the only one likeable enough to root for is a heartsick female executive, but the overstated implication that her unhappiness is a direct result of her professional success makes for a pretty mean-spirited haul.

Saturate the Bridgework

Big City Blues (1932)
directed by Mervyn LeRoy
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on TCM at Syl's

I took half an hour for lunch today, more than enough time for an anonymous, effeminate, pre-Code male lead to move to New York, get framed for murder, and fall in love with Joan Blondell. Another half-hour and he acquits himself with the authorities, returns to Indiana, and vows to marry that gal eventually. Someone else once called it really living the day, and there were 23 hours remaining in mine. Brevity and a little romantic fire are sacrosanct in gems like Big City Blues, from the camaraderie of a socialite drinking in a speakeasy alone to the promise from a once-young ticket-taker at the train station to watch the dreaming boy’s dog. It’s a stopwatch – the perfect circle.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Body Artist

Body Double (1984)
directed by Brian De Palma
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Catching movies on cable at friends’ houses in the late 80s and early 90s always had a Peeping Tom quality to it. The line between that one guy in the group who spent an inordinate amount of time trying to buy porn at the convenience store in some other neighborhood and the soft-core “erotic thrillers” that channels like USA were peddling was blurry. There was something a little unhealthy to both of them, I guess – something psychological and even perverse prying its way into old-fashioned sex-ed.

Maybe because both the TV and the side trips occurred late at night, usually in conjunction with setting off fireworks in the middle of the street, the idea of buying a ticket at a ticket counter to watch a movie like Body Heat at the theater would never have crossed our minds. Admittedly, I was a year old when Body Heat was released, but it’s a good example of the genre. Sneaking into Showgirls was one thing because nudity was one thing, but for a brief period of time, “adult situations” were actually marketed to – and frequently starred - people our parents’ age and passed off as mainstream entertainment for grown-ups.

Body Double is a masterpiece, both completely self-aware and down-the-line suspenseful. If Brian De Palma had directed no other movie, Quentin Tarantino could still sing his praises for understanding Hitchcock, loving Hitchcock, and making films as records of specific times and places that preserve and elevate instead of age and date past eras. Why is that so rare? Why does De Palma always seem to enjoy himself so much?

The better question is, why not? The 80s were sleazy, and what’s more fun than Body Double? Directing Body Double, maybe. And what are those narrow winding streets and high hills in Los Angeles so full of people and secrets for if not a good murder scene from a helpless distance?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Blonde Hair Goes My Bail

Lady on a Train (1945)
directed by Charles David
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Lady on a Train has something for everyone. Deanna Durbin, as I understand it, was a Hollywood actor particularly popular with teenage girls. Lady on a Train seems like a fairly typical vehicle for her, in that Durbin is more her real-life public self than any stretch of a fictional character. She witnesses a murder and takes advantage of a weekend away from Daddy to solve it. She’s plucky, unafraid of a little danger, and she likes to see how far her innocent good looks and socialite flair will take her.

There are two big musical numbers, and they couldn’t address more disparate audiences. In one scene, Deanna, who is vacationing in New York for Christmas, calls her father in San Francisco. She wants to tell him she’s enjoying her trip, and while he has her on the phone, he requests that she sing a song for him. “Silent Night” is delivered almost as if she were in a church, with a delicate, pretty voice framed by a misty close-up. It’s the picture of innocence.

Later, to crack open a couple of reticent crooks, Deanna sneaks into a nightclub and usurps the usual performer’s routine. A quick dress change and suddenly she’s an underage vamp, wowing a roomful of lecherous men with a slinky serenade. The movie ends with her marriage to the playboy mystery writer she enlists to help her solve the crime, who practically pants beside her as he waits for his teenage bride to wrap up his latest manuscript in time to deliver the honeymoon signed and sealed.

So one can only guess at what the crowd for the afternoon matinee looked like at that one. Hollywood was a strange place, but Lady on a Train is a great winter movie, surprisingly quiet between tracks and numbers with its muted snowdrifts and blonde cascades.