Thursday, May 27, 2010

Ballad of a Fifth Wheel

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia - Seasons 1-4 (2005-2008)
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from the vaults

For Christmas, one of our gifts from Elizabeth’s mom was a four season set of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Friends of mine seemed to like the show; blogs I read agreed. But a sketch comedy approach to topical social issues (or anything, really) isn’t usually an easy sell for me. The second episode focuses on picking up women at an anti-abortion rally, and I tend to think that only political conservatives like Matt and Trey Parker really ever go for “both sides of the fence” like that. Time passed and the DVDs sat in a closet, seasons 2 through 4 still vacuum-sealed.

When I stopped watching Breaking Bad about a third of the way through Season 2 (too contrived to justify the longing I felt seeing Albuquerque on my television) I wanted something fast and funny and returned to It’s Always Sunny. If I’d gotten the first season from Netflix, I almost certainly would never have gone back to the well, but that’s the thing about being a TV hound and having unwatched television in the closet. I come around eventually.

The cast, I gather, is real-life pals. And the show works best when it’s sweetest. That takes a little background in relationship dynamics: Charlie’s the wild card; Dennis is the good-looking but sleazy rich kid; Mac’s the well-meaning but insecure tough; and Dee is the girl who never really got over getting treated badly in high school. You need a few episodes to see how those folks interact, who uses whom, who’s in charge. But once you know them, you can revel in the company they keep with one another.

For me, Charlie going shopping for clothes with Dee is more endearing than Frank holding a contest for a billboard model could ever be. As the seasons progress, the show's plots are increasingly contrived, but small moments of character development become more engaging. It waffles in time with my affection; there are episodes when I can't believe I've held on so long and minutes when I'm glad I did. Partly cloudy?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Old Fashioned

Mad Men - Season Three (2009)
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

When Lane Pryce expresses relief to his wife that no one in New York has ever asked where he went to school, Mrs. Pryce complains about stateside taxicabs. The tea-drinking harbinger of the modern corporate mentality is more than just the office comedian with a touch of humanity. So solid is Mad Men’s belief in American possibility, regardless of the day-to-day difficulties associated with happiness and fulfillment, that even a half-honest colonizer can see it.

The season’s last episode was incongruous but entertaining. Presumably, the idea was to streamline the cast for season four, and while it was easy to root for our scrappy band of corporate runaways, the tone of their fairy-tale startup wasn’t quite in keeping with anything else in Mad Men. The John Deere massacre, while absurd, at least spoke to the moods and mental states of the nation. Was it Matthew Weiner who kept The Sopranos funny regardless of how bad things got for Tony and the crew? Weiner and the predominantly female writing staff on Mad Men certainly retain their sense of humor with Draper’s Dozen – a good precedent for “serious” TV.

But they overplayed their hands in Season 2 when Grandpa Hofstadt, in the throes of Alzheimer’s, mistakes Betty for her mother and cops a feel. It was weird at the time, but throughout Gene’s tenure at the Draper household, every encounter with the grandkids seems rife with danger when clearly the intention was to give Sally someone who encouraged her in all the ways that mom and dad don’t. Dear Betts, who never really learned how to love her kids the way a mother should, begins to catch on with baby #3, maybe because she believes she’s met someone who really could be a decent guy to her and the newborn both. I hope they give Francis that much, whatever his failings should eventually prove to be. And I kind of hope she marries him.

But I can never quite move past the fact that Don and Betty remain, at least as far as their kids are concerned, monstrously selfish people. Which is why I was glad that Conrad Hilton emerged for some perspective. With an introduction like his scene at the country club bar, and Don squeezing lemons into nicely sized rocks glasses, how could we, and Don, not love him?

Inevitably, Dick is seduced by this odd father figure, but Connie wouldn’t be a wildly successful businessman – or a great foil to Don - without also possessing every impersonal tic that left the real-life Hilton with kids like Barron and great-granddaughters like Paris (who, for the record, I like). Men like Connie don’t care about their children - or people at all - because they’ve never been close to anyone. They have an idea of the life they wanted when they were dirt poor in New Mexico, but the hotel appointments are just the dressings of control.

Conrad dominates the first two thirds of the season but disappears for the rest of it. When Don finally confronts him in his New York suite, Don’s anger about his contract is real, but Hilton can’t look beyond the failure of an ad campaign to appease his moonstruck whims. So Conrad is dismissive and goes, and Don sees once again that there is a need in this world to rely – and be able to rely – on other people. Sterling Cooper Pryce Draper is the same idea, but less succinct, on paper and off the tongue.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Dragged Into My Tomb

Mirage (1965)
directed by Edward Dmytryk
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

It's interesting how obvious an A-list thriller disguised as a B-list noir can look. The first clue is running time; anything over 90 minutes and you know the script got one too many passes from one too many theater men. If it stars Gregory Peck you can bet that he'll be tiresome by the end of it and that he didn't commit the crime he's going to spend most of the film accused of. There's something too clean about the cinematography and nothing petty or cheap enough in the characters' motivations.

Insurance scams are such great fodder for murders because it's so easy to believe that this time, the little lie might work. But an organization intent on world peace? A diabolical Major who wants better leverage for his nuclear weapons? That just doesn't fit the early rhythm of the movie, with Gregory Peck descending 27 flights of stairs in a blackout, then riding a subway in the dark. Lines and lines: a web. Walter Matthau shows up to deduce the source of Peck's "unconscious amnesia" and suddenly it's a buddy comedy. But oh, third acts can be deadly. The best movies shouldn't/don't even have them.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Never a Rifle When You Need One

The Parallax View (1974)
directed by Alan J. Pakula
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Not surprisingly, the future director of All the President’s Men knew a meal ticket when he saw it, but I take conspiracies for granted. Pakula doesn’t, or he wouldn’t act so surprised that Warren Beatty isn’t going to get out of this one alive. It’s tiresome to equate modern office buildings with faceless corporations and boring to be subjected to scene after scene of a man, all alone, framed against large concrete structures.

The problems begin halfway through, when the protagonist/journalist/detective enlists in a secret army of assassins and sits through five minutes of psychological tests that we, too, must endure. After A Clockwork Orange (released three years prior), subliminal indoctrination could only be funny (making Chuck the joke’s logical dead-end). But Pakula wants to play it straight and scary with all the blunt, dark cinematography Gordon Willis can cram into the lens. It’s too bad, too, as an earlier scene at the foot of a dam in rainy Washington State – a real-life, man-made set piece – is fun and menacing both. But politics and Illuminati offshoots require more serious attention, apparently, and I, for one, am much too cynical to play along.

Has any major movie star acted in a greater number of humorless movies than Warren Beatty?

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Asleep in Mississippi River Loam

All the King's Men (1949)
directed by Robert Rossen
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

All the King’s Men meant so much to me when I read it in high school that I never re-read it and never watched the hallowed Academy Award-winning 1949 production. That book was encased in amber until I forgot every scene except the memory of watching Anne swim from a dock one beautiful afternoon and Jack driving clear to Los Angeles to drink a milkshake and whisky in a hotel room. Eventually even those details became murky and I decided that I could watch an adaptation and not be hurt by it, no matter how bad it was.

It’s bad, and the greatest sin is that Willie Stark sounds for all the world like a New York teamster. New York doesn’t deserve him; I don’t romanticize the South but Huey Long will always be more interesting to me than a Rockefeller. Robert Penn Warren didn’t hate a single one of his characters, but the film is full of contempt for all of them. It’s cynical in ways the book and the man were not. If the stories are true and John Wayne was the director’s first choice, Duke was right to reject it, not from some patriotic fever but because, as he supposedly wrote, “To make Huey Long a wonderful, rough pirate was great, but, according to this picture, everybody was shit except for this weakling intern doctor who was trying to find a place in the world."

The great stories are love stories and Oscar is a grouch.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Hell is for Heroes

Back Door to Hell (1964)
directed by Monte Hellman
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Although the unavailable-on-DVD adventure film that Monte Hellman shot in the Philippines at the same time he made Back Door to Hell sounds like the better seventy-five minutes, casting men and women of the South Pacific as Indians to the Army’s cowboys is a neatly modern twist on the usual gung-ho hullabaloo. Like most Westerns, Back Door to Hell is a little careless with its origins of races, and the leader of the redskins gets a Mexican name that Eli Wallach would be proud to wear: Paco. The barely professional cast – including a Donald “Boon” Schoenstein type in the role of the duck-tailed Lieutenant – wins no free passes for Jack Nicholson defending “Japs as human beings,” but Hellman’s anti-authoritarian, low-budget beginnings are, however flat, still appealing. After all, those are real ruins and real palm trees; with a better camera and more money a man couldn’t feel the heat of the jungle any better than here. And if Laurie Bird was the kind of girl to haul a yak fur shoulder bag through lands of belts, short hair, and compacts, her Filipino predecessor dresses just like an extra from Days of Being Wild surrounded by men in fatigues and in a hurry.