Saturday, November 27, 2010

Sister to Blossom Rock, Brother to the Bay

San Francisco (1936)
directed by W. S. Van Dyke
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

In a way, Clark Gable's acceptance of God at the precise moment when He smites 3,000 residents of California is not the sort of holy turnaround that movie execs thought the yokels back east wanted, but instead Clark's character's great cynical gesture. "You killed all these people in order to save Jeanette MacDonald and serve her up singing at this funeral like an angel on high. Just for me!"

Maybe. It's the only way I can stomach the second half of the movie. But why not believe the holy rogue himself, who supposedly hated the final scene so much that he insisted on being filmed from behind to save the audience from watching him repeat such "soppy" lines?

Clark, as Blackie Norton, is the king of the Barbary Coast, and when he sits with his crown, drinking champagne and boxing at the local gym, San Francisco could last and last. But it doesn't, because Blackie falls in love with the daughter of a Colorado preacher, and Norton's own preachy preacher friend - and no actor could play Clark Gable's foil better than Spencer Tracy, the drip - wants him to allow her to sing. But not in a saloon, toasting the New Year and kicking her garters, but in the opera.

Of course there's another rich nobody who wants Jeanette for his own, and she's so struck with her own possibility that she floats from man to man, not knowing - until God talks to her, as well - that her heart was Blackie's all along. But kids, don't see it for the singing. See it for Clark, a true professional, and see it for the glee in uncredited director W. S. Van Dyke's unending destruction of San Francisco. For carnage and disaster, no alien invasion comes close.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey's visage shone...

Party Down - Season 1 (2009)
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The first season of Party Down makes the right choices about the kind of people its heroes really are. The show's producers are an interesting bunch: on the one hand, San Marcos High graduate Rob Thomas, still upset about the cancellation of Veronica Mars; on the other, Paul Rudd, likable dude. The Party Down team is likable, too, but they navigate a world both clannish and impersonal. LA being LA, you get plenty of variety in the setting for each catering job (from ranch house to boat), and the best episodes love the hosts (like the California College Conservative Union Caucus) almost as much as the help.

My favorite character is Roman DeBeers, because Martin Starr plays him like the asshole that guys like Roman really are. They smother you with Star Trek trivia and frighten the pretty girls who would be more scared still if they saw the heart of Roman's misogynistic intentions. But Roman works as part of a team because he's good with cruel asides, and teams rely on shifting allegiances to remain cohesive. It's the same with friends, and that bite is important to Party Down's success.

At its worst (and Thomas himself wrote "Investors Dinner," by far the most terrible episode), Party Down is mawkish, too bitter, and not funny. But most of the time, it's warm-hearted and sweet. Kristen Bell has never been more endearing than in the moment when she asks Henry on a date. Adam Scott belongs to this world more than Kenny Powers'. These are people who want the freedom of fame - to date beautiful co-stars, to swim on exotic beaches, to smoke pot while eating lunch by the pool - but couldn't care less about the money, per say. They already know the friends they want to be around because they choose to be caterers instead of some other average, minimum wage job. It's Entourage in reverse, but more generous, and with just as few Latinos!

Memo to Netflix: it would be nice if I could rent Season 2.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Talking in Pictures

Man of Aran (1934)
directed by Robert J. Flaherty
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Man of Aran begins, like Louisiana Story, with moving water and a child. But unlike that later masterpiece, Man of Aran is more of a technical exercise: a lesson in editing when the power of the ocean makes "telling it straight" impossible. Domestic scenes are the most beautiful, and the boy asleep beneath a still lamp approaches the tranquility of Joseph Boudreaux poling through the bayous of the American South. There is tangible comfort on that remote fringe of the Irish West, among dreaming beasts and warmth against the stormy world outside.

But they are separate worlds, home and island, and the wilderness around Michael Dirrane is stone, water, and wind, and none of it soft at all. Man of Aran is rough all over, and not only for Flaherty's limitations. But he is a master at capturing the essence of everyday scenes like cooking dinner or fishing for it. I've rarely been more surprised or delighted by a wrinkle in the plot than when Michael looks down into the sea from a perch on the cliffs and sees a basking shark feeding near the shore. There is a physicality to the grain of the stock and the drift of the beast that winnows the glass from the screen and sifts across each of one's senses. Flaherty might have made a great surfing film had he lived a little longer.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Express Through Anadarko

The Killer Inside Me (2010)
directed by Michael Winterbottom
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The big problem with 24 Hour Winterbottom's movie is that it's an adaptation, not just for people familiar with Jim Thompson's novel, but for fans. The same could be said of No Country for Old Men, of course, but how would Thompson the screenwriter edit the details that Winterbottom won't leave out? Should the union subplot make the cut? Lou's brother, even? Lou's mom? It's all here, deliberate as a grocery store shopping list.

I'm tempted to watch The Killing this weekend just to make my point, but all you need to know is that good intentions don't necessarily make good movies. To be sure, there are plenty of beautiful shots of Oklahoma and New Mexico from the inside of old cars. The violence is every bit as messy and ugly as it should be. But too many of the actors are cast because they look like someone they don't quite fit, and part of that, I know, is financing.

Casey Affleck isn't ever the Lou Ford who lives uneasily in my mind, but he looks about Lou's age (young), and that high, faint voice at least has an original drift. The same isn't true for the director, who might as well be spooning a bowl of porridge, and you can't help but wonder what this movie could have been back when, when a good book was a starting point and studio men were ruthless surgeons. Cut, cut, cut.

Incidentally, was Tom Cruise really once up for this role? In honor of dear old Stanley, perhaps? Have any of you ever seen a chicken?

"I'd finished my pie and was having a second cup of coffee when I saw him."

Thursday, November 04, 2010

You're a Double Bromo Seltzer

Young Man with a Horn (1950)
directed by Michael Curtiz
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Hoagy Carmichael deserves an acting retrospective at Film Forum someday, and even a minor role like "Smoke," the piano player who narrates the rise and fall of Kirk Douglas' Rick Martin, demonstrates how much of a presence he was. Kirk, you can tell, is just waiting for that big meltdown scene to really let his acting chops fly, but Hoagy never drifts above an easy glide in delivery, posture, or style.

Rick's black mentor - and Rick's devotion to him - is the heart of the film even after Doris Day and Lauren Bacall emerge as competitors for their leading man's love. But Bacall looks better when she isn't a psychological wreck, and the second half of Young Man with a Horn shears too far away from the friendship that helps the first half play so well. Rick's defense of an aging black man (played by Juano Hernandez) seems pretty progressive for 1950, and Art Hazzard is presented as Rick himself, more or less, albeit more comfortable with his loneliness and better grounded with relation to the bigger picture.

Still, it's an A-list production from a studio at the top of its game, and the most beautiful scene shows Lauren Bacall as she leaves Rick's apartment angry. She takes the elevator downstairs and into the lobby while a bellhop watches her through a reflection on the door. She passes the front desk, then smiles as she's walking to the exit and turns around. The bellhop steps back, the elevator doors close behind her, and we watch as the lights indicate her return to Rick's floor.

Hazzard gets the best line in the film, and I wish we could base more movies about aging around it, instead of the usual On Golden Pond goodbyes to the so-called greatest generation. The line is this: "People get old, they see things wrong mostly." Now imagine it slow - almost as slow as that tracking shot that leads Lauren Bacall out of the elevator. Sometimes there's no music to say what words say better.

Monday, November 01, 2010

How Taylor Nichols Left Metropolitan for Rural

Friday Night Lights - Seasons 1 and 2 (2006-2008)
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
viewed instantly on Netflix

I watched Halloween on the 31st, but I don't have anything new to say about it, except that the recurring shot of the outside of Lindsey Wallace's house is the scariest set in the movie. Ever onward, then, to a show with 22 episodes to a season. I'd forgotten what a march it can be to get from a pilot to the finale on that schedule, but Friday Night Lights is that rare phenomenon (at least these days) where the first season felt better thought-out than the second. The second was shorter, and I couldn't believe the number of bad subplots that the writers stuffed into a series that doesn't have a reason to exist if it isn't going to be about high school football.

As Syl said, the line between some of Friday Night Lights' "issue of the week" episodes (be it small-town racism, steroids in sports, or handicap awareness) and Strangers with Candy can get awfully thin. Jason Street's wheelchair buddy makes me grimace each time I see him, but I'm willing to float the bad characters (and even, yes, the murder) to spend time with three of the show's principals and the actors who play them: Eric Taylor, Tim Riggins, and Buddy Garrity. Kyle Chandler grew up in Georgia and Taylor Kitsch in Vancouver, but you can't fake a Texan with a man like Brad Leland around to live out what looks like his autobiography on the small screen.

Those guys make it work, whether Tim is coaching Powderpuff football, Coach Taylor is meeting with Smash over burgers, or Buddy is sleeping in the office of his dealership. I could watch them all day, and frankly, at the pace I'm going, that's how it works. I enjoy the Texas traditions like lake house parties, but more importantly, I admire the attention the show pays to the kind of state and small towns that could create men like Buddy, Tim, and Coach. They get the weather right, too, especially winters (it's officially a trend), and winter in Texas looks like summer from here.