Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Stick in the Mud of the Mississippi

True Grit (2010)
directed by Ethan and Joel Coen
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at Alamo Quarry

Oddly enough, it was A Serious Man that locked in the renewed affection I had for the Coens after No Country for Old Men. On the surface, A Serious Man was full of bad dramatic stereotypes: cheating wife, pot-smoking temptress next door, cancer. But there's that folk tale at the beginning, and the tornado at the end, and although neither made sense to me, clearly something very personal had been said, and could be gleaned with time.

My problem with the Coens is that they still make genre movies from the outsider's perspective of someone who is intrigued by the rules and moralities of westerns without particularly enjoying the... atmosphere, we'll call it, of creaky saloons and far-flung spaces. The scenes in True Grit where Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon converse casually should feel informal instead of stylized. Minor characters like the man dressed in bear skins aren't funny or odd for their appearance alone (or they shouldn't be, after all these decades of mountain landscapes); better to see shy Warren Beatty in that coat than a half-wild baritone.

In other words, there's nothing in True Grit anything like Rio Bravo or Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid: no down time between gunfights and campfires. The closest the Coen brothers get is in Josh Brolin's great performance as shaggy, bedraggled Tom Chaney. His looseness - emotional, physical - is the only quality of the film that doesn't feel like the final draft of a storyboard. Which is fine (those bookends are an art form all their own), except that I happen to prefer a more gangly, less rigid variety of ten-gallon tales.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Fixtures, Forces, and Friends

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
directed by Edgar Wright
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Third acts are Edgar Wright's weakness, and Jason Schwartzman lacks the magnetism and the cruelty necessary to be Gideon Graves. Gideon is pathetic and irresistible - Roman DeBeers with better looks and more swagger - and for that, you either cast a nobody with a certain something, or you cast a star. The merely recognizable face won't cut it.

Nor is Michael Cera pretty enough to be Scott, although I liked Michael Cera's performance. Scott Pilgrim's heroes are selfish twenty-somethings who accommodate one another's narcissism. Small cuts are inflicted with relative indifference, and actions are thoughtless, not carefully considered. The books are a marvel for growing up and accepting responsibility for other people's hearts. They encourage our potential for change.

Too, O'Malley's universe is a catalogue of the marvelous boys and girls that boys and girls meet in the course of a lifetime. Every one of Scott's exes is worthy of his love and undeserving of his mean-spiritedness. Wright, at his best, understands that, and Michael Cera - long the hapless bystander - sells it. You'd think, from my description, of a morose shuffle in the snow, but if Kieran Culkin can animate his droll, everyone can have fun. They do. It's a winter dreamland, orbiting the sun of Mary Elizabeth Winstead's smile - a nice little date night from out of the cold.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Weekend with Uncle Lance

Survival Quest (1989)
directed by Don Coscarelli
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Imagine Lance Henriksen as the leader of an Outward Bound-like program for young convicts, kids with low self-esteem, and Bucket List sexagenarians. It's the softer side of Lance; he speaks of lightning as Nature's way of starting over and asks everyone to keep a journal of his or her thoughts on a three-day solo hike through Angeles National Forest. "Survival in the wilderness is a matter of heart, not hardware," he says, not long after conducting a trust fall from the roof of his cabin.

Now imagine that a paramilitary group led by a gun-crazy commando starts picking on the Survival Quest team for fun. Meatballs, meet First Blood. Dermot Mulroney even looks like Stallone, except Sly doesn't crack wise about eating snakes ("I hear these things taste kind of like chicken") or take time out from his post-traumatic paranoia to spy on a blonde campmate at the river.

Coscarelli's affection for relationships between old men and young men is earnest to a fault, and his commitment to the theme of adolescent self-reliance is so strong that Lance bows out just when you want him to bring the hurt. But openness is exactly what Hank is after, miss him though we do. The upside to so tonally inconsistent a drama is something for everyone, though the "something" I'd prefer in the second half is action.

Oh well. In an interview yesterday, David Lynch said that his Eagle Scout award reminded him of his father, and the memory was a happy one. Lance gets a line a lot like that, and sitting beside Reggie Bannister in a twin engine turbo prop built out of chrome, the fatherless Lance is as present and as kind as dads should always be. If The Walking Dead were anything like Survival Quest, The Walking Dead would be a great show.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Short Snort Texas Norther

Goin' South (1978)
directed by Jack Nicholson
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Jack, looking more like Peter Fonda than ever, clearly gets a kick from the visual gag: a kid drinking at the local saloon; a bearded Hollywood star devouring a plate of boiled chicken; Texas sheriffs crossing the Rio Grande to capture a criminal who thinks they won't follow him into Mexico. Apparently he fell into directing this, but it proves what a little professional goodwill - Nicholson, by all accounts, is loyal to his friends - will get you.

For one thing, Goin' South looks like Days of Heaven, released the same year. NĂ©stor "the Molestor" Almendros shot both of them, but he filmed Goin' South in Durango, Mexico, and Nicholson's fake Texas looks more like the real thing than Terrence Malick's Alberta does. The "famous" bit of stunt casting here is John Belushi as Paunchy Villa, but Mary Steenburgen, whose appeal I never really understood, is a great romantic/comedic foil for the runaway bank robber who can never sit still.

Most westerns make a stagecoach ride look like something comfortable, but in Goin' South it's more of a buck than an easy sway. A town full of men saved from the gallows by well-meaning widows and spinsters who marry them is the sort of premise guys like Jack Nicholson build jokes on, not feature-length films. But he was never better than when he was young (41 counts) and a little sleazy, and those jokes don't tell themselves.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

"Good work, Denny. You've arrested a fish... and your car."

The Walking Dead - Season 1 (2010)
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on a computer from iTunes

I've decided that I'm not such a fan of zombies. Or, no, it's more that I prefer the malevolent spirits of the West Indies which are, in practice, more ghosts than zombies. Night of the Living Dead is still my favorite post-Val Lewton American incarnation, and Romero was smart to make his lumbering corpses a metaphor for the modern citizen. But, since then, what? They're fun to hunt, but it's their more horror-like mutations, like the witches in Left 4 Dead, that really bring out the romantic in me.

Zombies make me uncomfortable because I see them as a right-wing conspiracy theorist's Apocalypse of choice. Men who like to stockpile guns and rations against a hypothetical global meltdown probably see the world the same way that Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman does. We want to do right, and to live in peace, but some scientist is going to ruin things for everyone, and then we'll be glad we had this generator and this sack full of guns to defend the honor of our kids. Don't bring that stuffed animal unless you can fill it with black powder - innocence is dead!

I'm not interested in living in a world like that. I don't lie awake nights worrying about what would happen if things went really wrong. But Kirkman clearly likes to, and as his comic series progresses, it develops an icky obsession with all the ways that humans can be cruel - physically cruel, most of the time - to each other. Shaun of the Dead was a movie about love in the face of your worst bad day. The Walking Dead is about "survival," Republican-style: respecting the weapon, shooting your wife with a rifle, and laughing at Asian-Americans who can't hold their liquor.

Before The Walking Dead aired, I asked myself a question: what's the point? Why would I watch this? But it turns out the show is a smash hit, and season one is only half a dozen episodes, so watch it I did. The pilot spends a lot of time with a black man and his son, and I wanted to follow them on a fun adventure instead of traipse around behind the moral, violent cop who the camera prefers. But, like the Latino gang in episode 4 ("Vatos"), the black man is just there to teach our white hero a lesson about - yep - staying alive, and what really matters.

The biggest problem is that the writing isn't very good. The Georgia scenery is beautiful, but it's beautiful in Squidbillies, too, and at least there are things to laugh at in the Cuyler family. Squidbillies acknowledges the presence of migrant workers from central America in the rural South, and that's more honest to the character of the region than a jammie-clad abuelita calming her gun-brandishing nephew in downtown Atlanta. It's hard to imagine Rick Grimes visiting Stone Mountain the way Squidbillies' sheriff does, because isn't there a prison somewhere that can say more about the way we live?

About as much my cup of tea as a CGI gunshot wound, in the end. And while we're on the subject: you're in the South - get some deer blood and throw together a few fucking squibs!

Bonus zombie question: where are all the cats and dogs? Either the zombie infection crosses over to other species, in which case there should be all manner of undead four-legged beasts feasting on slow humans, or it doesn't affect Fido at all, in which case there should be tens of thousands of starving and abandoned household pets feasting on slow zombies. Right?

Monday, December 06, 2010

California Country

The Beastmaster (1982)
directed by Don Coscarelli
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from the vaults

Had I seen The Beastmaster at thirteen, I would still argue that it was the greatest movie ever made. But I was somewhere between Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective in 1993, and it wasn't until my mid-twenties that I experienced "The Don" Coscarelli's breathtaking adventure for the first time. It only gets better with age, and while Marc Singer is no Errol Flynn, Coscarelli is the same class act that Michael Curtiz was, and Dar is Don's prince of Sherwood by way of a missing Snowflake the Dolphin, stripped to the waist and set in a wilderness of sandstone bluffs.

The Beastmaster makes Coscarelli kin to Mario Bava, too, and directors who dream like cinematographers, and dwell among windswept courtyards and beautiful dancing girls with 100-year-old faces. It's another thing that makes you love makeup instead of CGI: no matter how grotesque the visage, that 13-year-old inside of you knows there's clearly a knockout of a woman wearing the mask. Maax kills the hero's dog, whose last act is to drag his unconscious owner to safety; Dar buries the loyal pet and Dar's adopted father together, not because the dog and the shepherd shared any particular bond, but because the Beastmaster loved them both with the same youthful heart. The way Dar brandishes his sword is the same way an adolescent would, with plenty of twirling and hacking at the air.

That's an actual tiger beside Dar the whole time, and an actual eagle that alights on Dar's gauntlet. Dar uses his friends as wingmen to hit on bathing slave girls. But just when you expect him to slash his way out of an ominous position, he is smart enough to at least see mysterious and eerie strangers eye to eye, and forge the uneasy alliance with no blood spilled that may serve his needs in the future.

Kiri isn't just a slave girl, she's a secret member of an ancient warrior sect. To enact justice, Dar makes a deal with the devil; one can guess that the winged creatures do not disappear forever in the wake of their marauders feast. Dar's real father, the king, is reduced to a pathetic figure, too blinded by revenge to recognize his first son for who he is. Dar does not reclaim him, and when given the choice to lead his freed people into the future, Dar sets off alone for a desert near Death Valley. Kiri joins him, like sunlight, and the prince abdicates his crown to live in open spaces with his red-headed love and his animal friends. That's heaven.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

The Ringside Kid

China Seas (1935)
directed by Tay Garnett
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

That scrawny MGM lion let me down with San Francisco, but everyone is exactly who they are in China Seas. Clark Gable's Alan Gaskell flees the "cool, clear, and clean" rivers of England to escape ruining a marriage and winds up the captain of a leaky transport between Hong Kong and Singapore. While running his 34 years of British longing into the ground in Asia, Gaskell falls in with (and, of course, falls for) Jean Harlow's uncouth nightclub wallflower "China Doll."

The twist, when Rosalind Russell shows up wearing her ladyship like a small hat, is that Clark loved Rosie first. In a lot of movies (San Francisco included), that would be an excuse for Ms. Harlow to sacrifice herself in some brave effort to save the boat from Malaysian pirates, and thus clear the way for the man she loves to get to be the person he really wanted to be. But hearts stay true, people still get hurt, and no one really changes. Not too much, anyway, and the Far East could just as easily be the Old West: same exotic atmosphere, same wonderful women to love.

It's screwball meets high seas adventure, and don't tell me Brian De Palma never saw that small Chinese steward brandishing an oversized Thompson machine gun from the deck of an ocean liner. Next stop, Miami!

"Ain't it funny? We always fight when it's moonlight and make up when it's raining."

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The 80% Unavailable to Stream Instantly that Breaks Your Heart

Impact (1949)
directed by Arthur Lubin
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The same day that Netflix announced their price jump, they sent me the 7th movie on my queue (Goin' South and disc 4 of Farscape's first season, among others, were apparently in sudden demand), which happened to be this. And, like the last film they mailed out of order, Impact begins great and kind of stalls. Helen Walker, as the wife of a rich man who works all the time, forgets how good she has it and plays around with a dull little sleaze who nonetheless likes her company, or at least her money, and makes sure to call every day.

The murder's been planned before the movie begins, but the boy toy isn't quick enough to pull it off, and Brian Donlevy, too old to play the romantic side of hard-charging executive Walter Williams, wakes up in a ditch with amnesia, his would-be killer charred to a crisp in an unplanned encounter with an oil truck not half a mile down the road. He stumbles east on a moving truck and finds himself in Potato Country, Idaho, where the memories return but the revenge motive festers. But Lord love a duck, that local mechanic is Ella Raines, a widow who wouldn't know a wrench from a headlight, saddled with her dead husband's debts just the same. Walt tinkers his way into taking over the business, and the thought struck me that more great movie scenes have been set at gas stations than almost anywhere else.

I loved Ella Raines the first time I saw her in Phantom Lady, but "honest grease monkey" relies too much on her acting simple and not enough on looking like your favorite double-crossing star-crossed suspect. Overalls don't do much for a pair of legs, and even her character's name is boring: Marsha Peters. Marsha, of course, will take Walt as he is, though she no doubt sleeps at the Ritz-Carlton when she comes to his aid in San Francisco. There she meets Charles Coburn, as Lt. Quincy, who goes around collecting all kinds of illegal evidence with a gut's helping of that Coburn family charm.

So what begins as a seedy conspiracy winds up a love song to Idaho family values and jokes about the local VFD. Jason Robards is the judge at the trial - the trial goes on forever - but you wouldn't know it if you didn't stay for the credits. My next #7 is Night Moves, starring Gene Hackman's mustache, and streaming more Friday Night Lights at half the cost of renting looks better all the time.