Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Le Plaisir (1952)
directed by Max Ophüls
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Jean Gabin’s hangdog sentimentalism almost steals the show, except he’s a little embarrassing as the half-lecherous, half-proud country brother to a popular madam from a rural town. And that, as always, is Ophüls point: that with women or without them, men will inevitably be reduced to anguish or ineptitude. Men are jealous and temperamental, men lie and take too much stock in their pride. But women are beautiful. Women are strong and self-reliant. They know that the world can’t turn without them, and they love the world too much to stop it.

Ophüls’ women – like Kenji Mizoguchi’s, Eric Rohmer’s, and Quentin Tarantino’s – suffer for their hearts and their men. They are heroes who inspire a cause more than martyrs who die for one (although they do sometimes die). They lead full, rich lives and at the end of the day retire into their own thoughts and dreams. In that way, a director like Ophüls does not make “minor” pictures so much as discover amazing women in minor places. And I do not condescend so much as talk down to obscure.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Substitutes Can Let You Down Quicker than a Strapless Gown

Crazy Mama (1975)
directed by Jonathan Demme
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

There’s a movie where Roman Polanski plays a vampire hunter; it’s a comedy, of course, but not a funny one. “Homage” wasn’t a sturdy narrative device back then, in part because the independent directors of the 1970s underestimated the craft involved in studio pictures. Movies like Crazy Mama are more often a mess than a pleasure, but in spite of a frenzied pace that borders on incoherence, Demme’s follow-up to Caged Heat is appealingly willy-nilly and warmly all-American.

For one thing, I've never been a Cloris Leachman fan because I dislike her typecast performance in The Last Picture Show. Here she’s a Venice free spirit who stuffs her breasts into a cocktail dress before marrying a married man in Las Vegas. Her dear mother dreams Southern dreams of reclaiming the family plot in Oklahoma. Linda Purl, the younger sister, occupies the drive-in crowd with her drive-in looks and clothes, and no one in the parking lot has to worry too much about the consequences of multiple hotel shoot-outs, bank robberies, and extortion plots. Everyone, including Bill Paxton on the CB, is just there to have fun.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Wild Blue Yonder

How the West Was Won (1962)
directed by John Ford, Henry Hathaway, and George Marshall
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Cinerama was invented to project "three synchronized 35 mm projectors" onto an enormous curved screen. Watching a movie shot that way at home is like trading a great theater-going experience for a perforated centerfold from a magazine. Dave Kehr's article on the restored Blu-Ray edition of the film is heartbreaking for the magic the format promised and clear as a lighthouse with regards to Ford's "Civil War" segment. Even on the unrestored (or decidedly low-def) disc I sat through in my living room, Ford's cynicism is Great Cinema, even if Harry Morgan doesn't seem to be in on the joke.

A regular TV reduces the Cinerama effect to a bad fish-eye lens, but there's enough there to imagine the rest. Presumably this is the kind of film the trades liked to call an "oater;" more than just a western, that phrase always implies (to me, anyway) the pace and interest level of a mule working his way through a bag of feed. Slow and a little tiresome. Which How the West Was Won can be. The patriotism is sloppy, the cameos too much, and the length unequivocally a crawl.

But Cinerama wasn't just size and it wasn't just landscapes. Audiences might like a travelogue, but they still wanted to see a movie, god damn it, and movies didn't just make themselves. How the West Was Won, among other accomplishments, is a great picture for great stunts. Jumping into cacti, jumping off of trains, rolling in a wagon down a hill. And the DVD I watched (that you can get from Netflix) included ten minutes worth of footage that a stuntman, Loren Janes, shot on the set in 1962. He narrates it dryly from 2008 with all the aplomb of Chuck Yeager asking for a stick of Beeman's. Once you see him dressed as Debbie Reynolds hitching a ride on a galloping horse, you'll always ask for Westerns at the video store.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Easy Bake

Watchmen (2009)
directed by Zack Snyder
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on Blu-Ray at Stealth's

Steve and I agreed that the Ozymandias/Dr. Manhattan team-up at least makes sense in the context of the considerable power the film invests in Manhattan himself. The problem with the movie's final act is less its faithlessness to the original giant squid than the bloodlessness of fifteen million vaporized bodies. Without corpses in the street and guts on every storefront, the emotional and strategic impact isn't quite the same.

The more relevant question at the front of my mind throughout the 3-hour director's cut was what, exactly, this particular adaptation adds to the source material. Steve said that, if nothing else, it inspires more people to read Alan Moore's book, and I guess that's true. The infamous superhero sex scene between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre might have been ridiculous, but no more than anything else. I don't know what I was expecting after everything I'd heard, but it wasn't what I got.

Again, it's nice to see actors I don't recognize in big movie roles. In comic book pictures especially, it makes the fictional universe seem less like a "franchise" and more like a world unto itself. Then again, Watchmen is a book without a sequel. But good for Zack Snyder, whose great credit sequence here suggests it's time to finally make a movie of his own.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Shadow of the Thin Man

The Princess and the Frog (2009)
directed by Ron Clements and Jon Musker
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD at Stealth's

Count me surprised that Disney hired professional voice actors instead of celebrities to give life to a New Orleans of fairy tale Southern pastels. Not only that, but a character dies - brutally - and the heroine's dreams come true not because the man she marries is a prince, but because he loves her and is willing to work hard on behalf of her ambitions. Of all the movies I watched and video games I played this weekend, The Princess and the Frog looked best on Steve's enormous television, because the swamps and graveyards of the animators' imaginations were the closest a conglomerate-controlled multitude of contributors and creators came to an immersive environment of their own.

Facilier's dreamworld was even scary, in a haunting-kids'-nightmares sort of way; shadows with a life of their own always are. Last summer, I expected Ponyo to be the great animated movie of 2009 but found it obtuse and "too Japanese." Whoever it is that can still paint at Disney deserves Randy Newman's salary and a string of contracts to match the dollar bills.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Forlorn Film

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)
directed by Brad Silberling
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD at Stealth's

There's a litmus test for adaptation in the earliest pages of the first book of A Series of Unfortunate Events: "If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels, and if you haven't, you cannot possibly imagine it." Silberling includes the line in order to set the tone of the film, while Jim Carrey, for the most part, underplays his tendency to turn any role into Ace Ventura. The production design is exquisite, and screenwriter Robert Gordon tailors the absurdity of the first three books' plots into a trimmer suit. The impression of shadowy, misunderstood machinations is present throughout, although the late (and explicit) revelation regarding Olaf's involvement in the Baudelaire fire misses Snicket's point about human nature completely.

To me, the Lemony Snicket books are not without their failings or the occasional sticky wicket of Anglophilia. But the last book in the series is something else: a great, sad novel about the mistakes people make and cannot atone for; the contradictions in ourselves and the people we love; and the rippling implications of even one unfairly broken heart. A man or a woman does not necessarily gain wisdom with age, or else wisdom is not the defense the mind and the heart require to be fortified against the terrible things at work in the world. Much of that philosophy is present in this movie, much to the movie's credit, but The End is wonderful and true, and rarer than any summary I could provide. I'm glad that an adaptation will never touch it.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Etch a Sketch in Paradise

Curb Your Enthusiasm - Season 7 (2009)
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVR at Stealth's

I've always thought of Curb Your Enthusiasm as the anti-Seinfeld. A lot of people consider Larry David the ultimate asshole, but unlike Jerry, Elaine, Kramer, and George, it isn't so much that Larry is self-absorbed as he is unwilling to deal with what he considers the selfish, superficial conventions of most day-to-day interactions. The joy of Curb Your Enthusiasm is watching a sane man cope in an insane world.

As the series stretches on, I think Larry the writer sometimes loses sight of that and slips into thinking about Larry the character as a fictional alter-ego of George Costanza (a copy of a copy). For instance, George is someone who would date a woman in a wheelchair in order to impress the people who don't like him. CYE might include a woman in a wheelchair, but Larry would help her in some small way for the right reason, only to have Ted Danson or Michael York mistake that kindheartedness for something cynical or perverse. I like to think I'm on Larry's side, but when he acts like George, I'm not.

Surprisingly, the Seinfeld subplot was pretty funny. I didn't expect to sympathize with the friendship between Larry and Jerry, but neither one of them can fool the other because they've known each other for so long. Larry's friendship with Jeff is a little different; there's more love in the relationship, and with Jeff cheating on Susie more gratuitously than he has in the past, it's nice to see that Jeff and Larry stay loyal.

But the best surprise this season was Marty Funkhouser. I never understood why he and Larry ever spent time in each other's company, since Funkhouser couldn't seem to stand LD. Was Marty Cheryl's friend first? Or is someone with that physical presence and that voice just too good to pass up for a foil? In Season 7, Funkhouser hits the clubhouse with Larry and Jeff, tells dirty jokes on the Seinfeld set, and even covers for Larry when the latter kills a bird. Suddenly, instead of a humorless jerk, Marty's a clueless frat brother. Instead of Larry and Jeff against the world, Larry gets a gang.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Heart of the Steal

The Deadly Art of Survival (1979)
directed by Charlie Ahearn
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The Deadly Art of Survival is a lot seedier than Wild Style but takes place in the same fun places: basketball courts, billiards halls, and disco dojos. The bad transfer of an 8 mm experiment in filmmaking still gets the spirit of martial arts movies right, meaning even the bad guys have a good time. They sit in bathtubs and soak their newspaper by accident or don ninja costumes in order to steal the hero's front tire, his hat, or his sandwich.

Ahearn may have made the film to help his friend Nathan Ingram draw attention to martial arts as a viable activity for poor kids in the Lower East Side, but there's plenty of funny small-time hood stuff and a great use of mirrors. Mirrors let the audience see the protagonist or villain as he sees himself; slip a gun or an old flame into the frame and it's almost like a dream. Plus Ahearn adapts picture credits to reflect the nature of his collaboration with Ingram. Instead of a title sequence, Nate the Great addresses the camera in character while showing off his brand of taekwondo. Not enough kids, maybe, but a great double-bill with The Foot Fist Way.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Until the Real Thing Comes Along

Beat Street (1984)
directed by Stan Lathan
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Wild Style (1983)
directed by Charlie Ahearn
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Let's be honest; when it comes to hip-hop, I'm about thirty years behind schedule. The good news is I'm trying not to be, but no one's going to notice that in this review. It might be dismissive to post Beat Street and Wild Style together, but I watched them as a double feature and I'll embarrass myself less the fewer opportunities I have to talk about Lee Quiñones or the Treacherous Three in writing.

It wasn't any surprise that Beat Street, with its West Side Story overtones, includes at least one romance, but Wild Style didn't have to, and I like that Ahearn did. I guess both of these movies are about kids trying to figure out who they are and how to protect that in a world that is not looking out for them, but I appreciate how inarticulate Rose and Raymond are around each other. It's a lot more effective than Ramon giving speeches about his father in Beat Street, or even Double K's mother saying things like, "I've already lost one son out there."

Beat Street switches the action to winter, at least. Which means no basketball gets played. And again, I like that basketball is something the same guys who rap and dance in Wild Style take part in. My favorite performance was Grandmaster Flash in someone's kitchen; there's a closeness in that scene that Kenny making music in his bedroom on a big set just can't approximate.

And Rae Dawn Chong is Tommy Chong's daughter? Who knew? Anyway, I'm off to take my vitamins and walk the mall!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Charred and Rare

Crime Wave (1954)
directed by André De Toth
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Crime Wave is a noir where the lights are brightest right up in front of the camera. The night gets dark very quickly just beyond the foreground, and ill-intentioned men lurch out of nowhere into the frame, then jump back into the shadows. Instead of luxuriating in the soft touch of a moonless city, De Toth makes it menacing; safety is public places, like the inside of a diner or the train station. The director keeps time with the pace and routes of patrol cars driving slow with the radio on. As the audience, we sit in the back, but having a friend drive you around is a great way to see Los Angeles.

De Toth reportedly fought for Sterling Hayden, and I'd bet dollars to donuts that Robert Shaw was a fan of his fine performance as Detective Lieutenant Sims. It was the Indianapolis I heard in Hayden's cadence: the same build-up, same pause, same slow impact and upward inflection.

"Yeah, I know. Sober, industrious, expert mechanic on airplane engines. A pilot before the sent him up. Now works at a private airport in Sunland, right?"
"Call him."

The best studio pictures have a deep bench, and everyone in this 73 minute gem - from Timothy Carey to Jay Novello to Dub Taylor - is a credit to the industry and the plot. Hank Worden plays as close to normal as he ever could, and all kinds of beautiful women seem to fill in around the frames. They work at the police department, at the all-night coffee shop, and one of them is married to the ex-con we care about. Noirs always suit a rainy 10 pm, but only a few make you wish it rained the next day. This is one of them.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Joe Pepitone Jersey

Date Night (2010)
directed by Shawn Levy
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at the Manor Theatre

My least favorite scene in Date Night is Steve Carrel's "heartfelt" appeal to Mark Wahlberg. Wahlberg plays the beefed-up but sensitive romantic he perfected while charming Lou Diamond Phillips in The Big Hit, and Carrel needs Mark's help to really make his night in the city a success. "I'm just an ordinary slob with ordinary disappointments and daydreams," he sobs (more or less), and of course it works because bad screenwriters love to condescend to the lives that they think average Americans lead.

But that little diatribe aside, Date Night is warm, funny, and surprisingly fair in its assessment of the state of modern movie marriages. Tina Fey doesn't have to be a shrew, Carrel doesn't have to be a schlub, and they can both aspire to a happy union and even a little romance without it seeming too much like something you'd see in an ad for Parenthood. And yes, Tina Fey winds up dressed like a stripper, and no, Steve Carrel doesn't, but at least crooked District Attorney Frank Crenshaw isn't happy until they hit the pole together. Let's see Crenshaw's date night in the sequel.

Meanwhile, J. B. Smoove, James Franco, and Mila Kunis take the cameos and run (to the bank). If "Taste" is all we get of Daniel Desario until Your Highness, a taste will have to do.

Friday, April 09, 2010

When the Legend Becomes Fact, Print the Menu

Wagon Master (1950)
directed by John Ford
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The dozen or so stray dogs following Ward Bond’s Mormon wagon train west typify the friendly, ragtag nature of both the narrative and the production. I don’t think I’m used to seeing cold openings in westerns from 1950, but Wagon Master begins with the execution of a bank clerk by a gang of closely related killers - among them “old Mose,” too wizened and affable to ever be cold-blooded. Post-credits, though, the future brightens considerably. Harry Carey, Jr. plays the usual sap, although with more of a spine and more of a brain than he was sometimes permitted, and “gentle” Ben Johnson Eagle Scouts his way into the good graces of the knockout with a heart of gold.

If there’s novelty in the idea of Mormons as heroes – or, at the very least, average Americans – it seems to me that here they’re just one more variation on the motif of Western outsiders. Like hookers, I guess Mormons have never sat well with the general public, even in 1950, but Ford gives them both a fair shake as one more incongruous band of pioneers. He shoots the Mormon women at a Navajo "squaw dance" like judges from The Passion of Joan of Arc, but increasingly, I watch westerns the way my grandfather did, happy to luxuriate in the trappings of the genre. The details, like a side of bacon pulled out of a barrel of salt and slapped upside an outlaw’s head, are perfect; I could live on that bacon, and that scene, for a month. The spirit of the picture, aside from the dogs, is in the way the characters fill their spare hours, and I've never seen any Western where so many cowboys whittled wood.

Friday, April 02, 2010


Swing Out, Sweet Land (1970)
directed by Stan Harris
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from the Carnegie Library

Like Lyndon Johnson, John Wayne receives no quarter from progressives of a certain stripe. Because of his role in selling Vietnam as a patriotic mission that Americans should take in pride and support – and The Green Berets is the epitome of that influence - he is to some degree accountable for the unnecessary deaths of the men who enlisted to fight overseas. Worse, that film indirectly legitimized and even popularized the Vietnam War in the eyes of Americans (and American leaders) who could sign off on troop escalations or longer tours of duty without sending their own children to Southeast Asia to fill either quota. Duke was a national icon, and he deserves his share of that blame.

But Swing Out, Sweet Land is a good argument for a better legacy. The Wayne Doctrine, as it were, was not rabidly pro-war, and Wayne’s targets were not critics of Vietnam so much as protesters. He believed in “civilized” dissent, and his bone to pick was with what he perceived as an effort by liberals to categorize the great historical accomplishments of American society as inconsequential footnotes to centuries of mindless, bloodthirsty expansion. No, I do not agree with him. I am aware of the cultural coding of the word “civility” when used by conservatives in 1970. But movie lovers love Wayne and conservatives love Wayne, and there has to be some way to bridge the divide without discounting (or adopting) his political influence completely.

Made for TV and paid for by Budweiser, Swing Out, Sweet Land is Duke and his buddies recounting highlights of United States history in the vaudeville/roast tradition of the era. Bob Hope does a set at Valley Forge, Dean Martin plays Eli Whitney as a skirt-chasing drunk, and Glen Campbell lip-syncs the worst of the Irving Berlin songbook (“If this is flag waving/Do you know of a better flag to wave?”). Wayne, in coat and tie, traverses an enormous sound-stage map that grows with the continent. In the 90 minutes worth of skits, Belva Lockwood, an early female candidate for President, is reduced to a caricature in need of “support,” and Frederick Douglass (née Roscoe Lee Browne) is neutered of any racial anger in favor of actually complimenting Mark Twain (aka Bing Crosby) on his decidedly non-racist (ha!) novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

So again, this is not an apology. But what Wayne understood was the American promise that a man can be who he wants to be. He can start over if he needs to: a clean slate. And, of course, that is not quite true either, and certainly in 1970, as before, that promise did not apply to a huge portion of the population. But unlike Vietnam or lowering taxes, it is an argument and a myth worth believing in. And in Swing Out, Sweet Land, Duke sells it. The best guest is Johnny Cash, singing a song about Promontory Summit from the front of a moving train with enough swagger to wake the dead. But the best short is Wayne’s.

Dressed in full cowboy regalia, he rides into a ghost town somewhere out west. The camera is a crane shot, and Wayne sits on horseback alone. The horse moves slowly, and Wayne dismounts in front of the ruins of an empty pioneer bar. He takes a seat inside, looks around, and draws circles in the dust with his finger. "Must be a lot of ghosts around here," he muses. Then he grins. "Bet I know how to wake 'em up!" he roars. In an instant, the camera cuts to a crowded saloon full of Old West types as they raise sloppy glasses of beer and join in a lustful rendition of "My Darling Clementine." It’s mythmaking, for a moment, at the level of John Ford, who might have been a “Maine Republican” but stood up against H. U. A. C. when it mattered.

Still, I wouldn’t have run on quite this long if that’s all there was to it. At the very end of Swing Out, Sweet Land, John Wayne stands in front of the camera and recites a monologue about the country he loves. He recounts the unassuming childhoods of great citizens – men born ordinary who rose to spectacular heights – and he proudly includes African-Americans among them. He does not mention Vietnam, does not mention protestors, and has no words of ill intent towards anyone. Instead, he speaks gently, and makes a heartfelt appeal to generosity, kindness, and brotherhood. He believes, he says, not only in second chances, but in third chances, and more. And he concludes with a joke that isn’t one. "Free is still the best four-letter word I know." Say what you will, but there’s no Republican these days like him, and speaking as a Socialist Democrat, I wish he was still around.