Thursday, July 22, 2010

Dogs & Funerals

A Single Man (2009)
directed by Tom Ford
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

I was surprised by how willing critics were to classify A Single Man as a superficial movie based on the assumption that Tom Ford, as a fashion designer, works in a transparently superficial industry. It was easy to argue that Ford chose static images of naked torsos or modern architecture because they convey beauty and isolation and hopefully remind you of a better, more romantic movie by Wong Kar-Wai. Fashion people, I gather, didn't expect so much understatement, given Ford's penchant for Terry Richardson photo shoots featuring well-oiled blondes sucking on men's fingers.

All of that ran through my head, but A Single Man is full of choices neither obvious nor simplistic. It is a movie of restraint: we witness in full the moment when George hears of his lover's death, but see George's ensuing breakdown in quiet, brief flashes. Neither does Ford return to the composed scene in the snow that begins the film, when all signs point to an eleventh-hour repetition. Narration is used discreetly, and if Ford "relies" on his actors, he is enough of a director to draw out fine performances.

Too, he notices the right details on a close, interior-centric set. Those shots of eyeliner reminded me of Indiana Jones's favorite front-row co-ed with "love you" written on her peepers. But instead of playing star-struck, the Brigitte Bardot look-alike in George's English class calls her outwardly confident, handsome prof "cagey" behind his back. When was the last time we saw that dynamic in movie college?

Monday, July 19, 2010

This Blog Endorses Sam Axe Body Spray

Burn Notice - Season 3 (2009-2010)
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Burn Notice is the most formulaic show I watch. Each week a new group of criminals – who pay lip service to the cultural diversity of Miami - is introduced and dispatched with MacGyver-like flair. I await the new "big bad" each season only to watch him/her assassinated with reckless clarity along about episode 16 by someone higher up the conspiratorial food chain.

So why do I love it so much? Why do I not get tired of the jokes, the scenarios, the routines? Part of it, yes, is the dynamic between Jeffrey Donovan, Gabrielle Anwar, and Bruce Campbell. Fiona is my favorite (currently airing) TV heroine (sorry Betts), not just because she's a badass but because the writers use her love for Michael to illuminate how selfish a person Michael can be. Romantic counterparts are often employed to make an unlikable character more appealing (why else would Anna date Morgan in Chuck?), but without Fi in his life, Michael's drive to get back into the CIA and help his country would seem nobler to us than it does to the woman who loves him. Instead of making Fiona a casualty of "necessary heroism," Burn Notice lets her be strong, sympathetic, and resentful - and for longer than the space of an episode.

The truth is, I can spend time with John T. Chance anytime I throw Rio Bravo into the DVD player. But you know what? Everyone who starred in that movie - except Angie Dickinson - is dead. And it's nice to be able to hang out with someone driving the same Ford F150 I used to own when a new season of Burn Notice comes out on DVD. It's nice to know I shook Bruce Campbell's hand in person once, and laugh at all those beer drinking jokes he cracks while I get something cold from the fridge. I don't have plans to visit Miami, but who wouldn't want to buy a ticket and make fun of Michael's suits from a beach chair by the ocean?

It's escapism on enough of a tether to relate to, not just because characters fall in love like you do, or have mothers, but because those mothers are empathizers and the people you fall in love with are gentle, decent human beings. After Season 2, I described Burn Notice as the definitive three-star show. Maybe it is, but I'd be lying to myself if I didn't give it four.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Orange Aid

Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008)
directed by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

As a thirty year-old, I’m self-conscious about Malin Akerman’s bare breasts selling me on a movie like Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. They don’t (see Watchmen), but shouldn’t a sequel as stupid as Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay reward the teenagers who sneak in to watch it? This series, let’s face it, is written for a younger man. Again, civil rights are broached in us-against-them generalities, putting the kid in the audience squarely on the side of progress against narrow-minded, bigoted enforcers of the law. But prison tops out at five minutes and one homophobic joke too many, and then it’s a free-for-all of mostly scatological humor, said nudity, and crackpot Bush apologist nonsense. Harold and Kumar are a funny team, but I’m suspicious of why politics made it into the script at all.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Kings of Cool

Elvis (1979)
directed by John Carpenter
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

For all the talk of how much respectability short season, long-form shows like The Sopranos or Mad Men have brought to cable television, it's still difficult to imagine a hot new Hollywood director taking a break from his big screen career to make a movie for TV. Elvis is post-Halloween, pre-Fog John Carpenter, and if his safe re-telling of the recently dead pop star's life and career offends no one, I still like that Carpenter saw the Sunday night format as a way to expand his dramatic range. Besides, who wants an Elvis biography that offends?

Elvis does two things better than I would have imagined. The first is to surround Elvis with black extras in casual scenes. Presley's progress, Carpenter reminds us, occurred within a prominently African-American musical milieu. In 1979, I doubt that popular consensus gave Elvis's influences and heroes any credit at all for the King's success, and it's important that Carpenter is happy to. The second deft touch is how well Carpenter conveys how out of place someone like Elvis must have looked to his Memphis classmates in high school. It's easy (if you don’t mind pomade) to romanticize "cool" from a ducktail and a pink sport coat in 2010, but those were strange accoutrements in the early 1950s.

Still, every Martie needs a Leo (or at least a Michael Pitt), and no one sells oddball like the Batman we never knew, Kurt "the Skirt" Russell. You know that somewhere down the line, David Lynch watched those pink credits and the little impersonator that could and asked himself, “What’s Barry Gifford up to these days?” Well, what’s John Carpenter up to these days? And doesn’t Kurt get tired of playing coaches? Isn’t there one last old-age sense of humor left between them? Something that Elvis might have liked, far from the sea of horror where late-career Carpenter drowns - a modern-day Treasure of the Superstitions, maybe, where the one homage to the past is Kurt’s arctic/desert beard.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Peaceable Kingdom

Robin Hood (1973)
directed by Wolfgang Reitherman
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from the vaults

The stakes aren’t particularly high for Robin Hood or Reitherman, either, since there isn’t a scene in Disney’s production that elevates Prince John past comically inept. Without a real villain, one can bask in the swashbuckling charm of that sliest fox, or coo with the wabbits at Maid Marian’s grace, but the fun is a lark instead of an adventure. There aren’t enough interior swordfights, for one, considering how well animation lights candles in dim passageways. Or rain, or thunder, or any of England’s stormy moods. Not that every beast in the stable needs to scare the living daylights out of children, but why not?

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

I Want You Around

Rock 'n' Roll High School (1979)
directed by Allan Arkush
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Today, my aunt in Texas looks a lot like P. J. Soles. I might always remember her best for Halloween, but she's great in Rock 'n' Roll High School because she's a junior-year dream of the girl who was nice each time you saw her (although "hi" was all you'd ever get). Dey Young is maybe more approachable, what with the glasses and all, but sweethearts like Soles’ Riff Randell could see through that better than you could. In real life, the Kate Rambeaus of the world don't one day switch to contacts and claim their crown in a single stride; it's everyone else who comes around, much too late - just like Tom Roberts - to take her to the movies.

Rock 'n' Roll High School should be screened at public school freshman class commencements on a TV big enough that no one has to strain her eyes to see. The Ramones set the heroic tone for making sure your brief four-year educational window counts, since I imagine that bands, as a rule, are discouraged from letting Hollywood producers co-opt original material for blondes (like Riff) who write mash notes at home. But if Riff getting Joey to sing her song means that even Eaglebauer can have his fun, it's the right call to make on behalf of everyone stuck in an algebra class long after Roger Corman, God bless him, has gone to his grave.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Winterfat and Fernbush at Skywalker Ranch

Fanboys (2008)
directed by Kyle Newman
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The spirit of Fanboys is true to its protagonists and won't let them participate in the cruder variety of cross country adventures that fictional twenty-somethings in a van so often get into. Namely, no bare breasts, and of course the prostitutes inevitably chanced upon in Nevada function as confidants to confessions of good-natured regret. The death of a friend remains a clear presence throughout the movie but neither spoils the gentle mood nor imparts too saccharine a message.

Or maybe the king of cameos, Danny McBride, is silly enough to temper an otherwise stark and underwritten Albuquerque room. K-Bell's lapdogs travel, presumably, all the way from Ohio to Northern California, but they leave too many breadcrumbs: that's Satellite Coffee (one of 9 locations!) and those are locust trees and privets off the road. The Phantom Menace debuts at the Hiland Theater, boarded most of the year, and there's a great Vietnamese restaurant just down Central and across the street that catches evening light off the mountains. Heck, even "old reliable" - the town square of New Mexico's little Las Vegas - tips its hand. They're not pains in my heart, they're happy reminders, and I'll take what I can get.