Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Louche Saint of Tangier

Flamingo Road (1949)
directed by Michael Curtiz
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Curtiz begins this small Southern potboiler in the tents and lights of a traveling carnival. But when Joan Crawford complains about the dirt she's picked up by dancing in hundreds of towns, her dress and the room are clean as whistles. No, the road show is Casablanca in soft focus, with the same Arabian music floating through the air. There's even a late-night rendezvous between ex-lovers, both more cynical than when they first met.

At 44, Crawford is much too old to play the seductress of two ambitious men, but Sydney Greenstreet, at 70 (!), is just right for corrupt Sheriff Titus Semple, all linen suits and lazy front porch complaints. Everyone makes fun of his weight, and Semple laughs right along with them, sweats a bit, and cuts their throats. He eats slices of pie and orders milk by the pitcher, and whispers seedy secrets to weaker men. "Pinch its ear," he tells his deputy, who strikes the siren on the squad car. "I like to hear it squeal."

Monday, June 28, 2010

Desert-Loving Englishmen

Treme - Season 1 (2010)
rating: 1 out of 5 cravats
on HBO in Oxford

New Orleans deserves a great show, and it is tempting to say that simply by being a show about New Orleans, Treme is enough. But that’s a laughable idea, and Treme is terrible. The Wire, of course, was less about Baltimore than the more general modern American city; Maryland just happened to be the place that David Simon and Ed Burns knew. At some point Simon visited Louisiana, maybe before Hurricane Katrina, maybe after, and to give him the best possible benefit of the doubt, he decided to make a show that re-focused the country’s attention on what went wrong there.

But if Treme is the best that Simon the Tourist can do, it’s a pretty poor showing. The Onion headline about the nation’s crumbling infrastructure being “probably some sort of metaphor” says “help” more sweetly than this broad, almost shapeless character study that reduces New Orleans to something so close to stereotype that it’s shocking. At the very least it’s disappointing. I could go on, but criticizing the musical choices themselves (Steve Zahn is the only character who listens to hip-hop?), or the guest appearances by “real life” Southerners, or 90% of the words out of men’s and women’s mouths, misses my point more than makes it.

It’s funny; people want to like Treme. From conversations and word of mouth, it seems to me that the show arrived this spring with an inordinate amount of goodwill for its future. And there are moments when characters deal with loss that are touching and restrained. I guess it’s hard not to be moved by a funeral procession given enough time to run its full course over several lovely minutes on screen, but to cut from that to a Steve Earle original that he composes on camera as part of a plot point is sad. When it isn’t scenes of black cultural traditions that Simon can’t take credit for, Treme is a petulant upper middle-class white man complaining about neglect – always his own. Surely when HBO gets off its high horse and cancels the show, Simon will find something better to do than join the chorus.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

In the Shadow of Frank Bascombe

Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004)
directed by Danny Leiner
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Stoner flicks are gentle buddy comedies, where the action is inconsequential even when events get out of control. But a movie in which the protagonists’ goal is to eat a meal of fast food hamburgers should make said feast so appealing when it happens that, upon witnessing the act, the viewer reaches for the car keys to seek out his own post-screening satisfaction. Harold & Kumar - although no Pulp Fiction - was convincing enough to make me want to smoke pot, get a cheeseburger and fries to go, and watch Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle again. It is silly at times, stupid at times, but surprisingly wry, vigilant, and astute in its condemnation of the casual day-to-day racism that people like Kal Penn and John Cho encounter in real life. The physical gags the pair endures are slip-shod at best, but in a movie like this, a puppet raccoon is funnier than Neil Patrick Harris in an outdated cameo as a hyper-masculine addict. Frankly, too, it’s nice that no one has to make it to a wedding the next day, or that the work that Harold brings home doesn’t take long to finish. Knowing the happy fate of Harold & Kumar 3 thankfully makes the question rhetorical: why work in politics when you can make movies like this for a living?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Baby by the San Francisco Bay

The Room (2003)
directed by Tommy Wiseau
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD at Banjo's

I wanted to quote this clever IMDB critic wholesale, but that isn’t what you, my lucky readers, pay me for. You pay me to be derivative and sloppy. I missed completely, it seems, the early collective discovery of this movie, and I missed the tour of midnight theaters that The Room made (still makes?) in the wake of Tim and Eric’s endorsement. If I hadn’t – if I’d read too much – I would have been better prepared and more cynical, but in retrospect I think The Room would still have won me over. As it is, it was a kind of pre-game talisman that played some part in spurring the Celtics to their last victory over the hated Lakers in Game 5 of this year’s NBA Finals. We gathered around the sofa, with dogs and a blind cat at our feet, and what began as a fifteen-minute preview segued into watching the entire film.

The secret, I am sure, is seeing The Room with other people. Without the crowd, it would only be odd, but together – you, me, and Dupree beside one another - it is frame-to-frame funny. The formula, I promise, will not be duplicated by anyone involved in the production ever again, and nothing the director/star can say in interviews can add anything to the experience. Comedy is strange but sometimes it clicks, and it’s nice to share the laughs when it does.

Scott Foundas, by the way, clearly watched it alone.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Kissed in the Dark

True Blood - Season 2 (2009)
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from the vaults

That “God Hates Fangs” church billboard in the opening credits promised more comedy than Season 1 delivered. Ditto True Blood’s very first scene, in which the vampire is not the scary Trent Reznor knock-off we suspect but instead the overweight country hunter browsing the cooler. Brother Jason was a gay idol just waiting for his breakout, Andy was still the angry Pole from The Wire, and the killer was any name picked from a hat. Don’t tell me it wasn’t, in the end.

Freed of Sookie’s grandmother, the writers made Season 2 as wonderful as I always wanted True Blood to be. Fully realized characters interesting enough to anchor their own shows are introduced and killed off with gleeful abandon. The world outside of Bon Temps expands exponentially with each episode’s dozen or so new mythological revelations. Vampires fly! Dallas is a sexy city! The blood of a vampire might save your life, but you’ll think of him in your dreams. There is art in the little touches, subtlety in the humor, and everywhere an un-self-conscious sense of fun. Stuffed as a turkey, stuffed as a pillow.

The Buffy-Angel-Spike love triangle (a match down to the same heads of hair) is the definitive fictional romantic TV template, and True Blood is smart enough to steal from the best. Without someone like Xander dressing like he can’t do it himself, the supporting players find plenty to occupy their hours that isn’t just reacting to the principal cast. Remember when Lohan donned fake fangs to “audition” for True Blood on Twitter? You don’t? Well, she did, but True Blood, by and large, is a cast of non-famous faces. New episodes are like happy meals with their own shiny stars-to-be.

The best idea? That words – spoken deliberately, though their implications are forgotten – have power, whether or not the person who speaks them is a fraud. The best moment? Eric with the kids. But there is so much that’s good, delivered fast and loose from the mouths of charmers, beauties, and con-men, that – at least until the disappointingly transitional season finale – the argument for fantasy as the great escape from a daily grind wins (back) a friend in me. Alan Ball, I owe you an apology.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

The Wind in the Hollows

Dragonwyck (1946)
directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Maybe it’s the witchcraft in the comic books I’m reading, or shades of Vincent Price rounding up devil-worshipers much later in his life. Maybe it’s the Hudson River Valley, ripe for stories of ghosts who meander like fog in deep woods. What is superficially a Victorian-era Gothic tale of madness transplanted to the settlements of wealthy Dutch landowners in New York retains just enough wildness to imply another, more frightening film entirely. Gene Tierney is far less convincing as an ingénue than a sexually rapacious opium addict, but the physical presence of her youthful beauty is enough to contrast the dim interiors and ill temper of a haunted mansion and its heir.

But that throne in the woods, where indentured farmers gather to pay fealty to Price, suggests a more barbaric ritual - something brought over from the Old World to the new, preserved in ancient incantations, and performed to ensure the longevity of a dark and cruel line of powerful men. Instead of a twisted but still Romantic ode to democracy, hard work, and the common man, Mankiewicz’s directorial debut could have been an early Night of the Demon, or something stranger. It is difficult, in thinking on that region’s history, not to be reminded of all the blood spilled there in the earlier years of our country. There are stories yet to tell and spirits to call back into being.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Pomade, Cigarettes, and Sunny Days

Women of the Night (1948)
directed by Kenji Mizoguchi
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

There is nothing new under the sun, and no fictional testament to the cruelty visited on women by men more violent or difficult to watch than the films of Kenji Mizoguchi. At barely 75 minutes, Women of the Night subjects its heroines to enough abuse, disgrace, and embarrassment to satisfy the most sadistic fan of Japanese poetic realism. So complete is the pain, in fact, that I won’t be queuing up the rest of the Eclipse “Fallen Women” set anytime soon. Ghosts and mile-long tracking shots are one thing, prostitutes beating the daylights out of an associate who wants to escape her rotten, unhappy life quite another. Be kind to the people you love and kind to the people you hate, and remember the thin walls and boulevards of destitute post-war Osaka.