Thursday, February 24, 2011


City Girl (1930)
directed by F. W. Murnau
rating: 5 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Sunrise is mentioned many places, and rightly so. The press I like the least involves Terrence Malick, who made his career on the comparison. Days of Heaven, it turns out, is a dull approximation of City Girl, not Sunrise. I'm proud that my opinion about Malick has changed over the years, and I'll try not to talk about him anymore.

Better to talk about City Girl. A boy named Lem leaves Minnesota to sell his father's wheat in the city. He meets a waitress named Kate at a counter-type restaurant; she dreams of the country, marries him, and follows him home. Lem's father is a hard man, unkind to Kate, and Kate is brokenhearted that Lem won't stand up for her. She thought she'd found a "real two-fisted guy to take care of me," she says, but she was wrong.

There are wrinkles, and a storm. The wheat must be cut in advance of it, and a cartful of harvesters fall in love with Lem's unhappy new wife. One veers from happy-go-lucky to truly menacing in the face of a full moon, but the rest comb their hair and lounge about while one tries for the title of Mr. Kurt Rusell of 1930.

I'm not doing it justice. "What's the matter with you hicks?" asks Kate. "Don't people ever fall in love out here?" She is the strongest woman I remember from almost any film, carefree at her happiest, and striking in her fury. Real-life fields of Oregon wheat move like the sea, but the fence that Kate walks beside is standard-issue studio sized, stretched to the far horizon of night only by Ernest Palmer's cinematography and by Mary Duncan herself. "Happiness must be earned," said the desert djinn, and a world away, beneath the same stars, stands Kate.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Mister Dog

Moonrise (1948)
directed by Frank Borzage
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
watched instantly on Netflix

Like They Live by Night, Moonrise is as much about the men and women who aid and abet the protagonist as the crime he commits or the family guilt he tries to get out from under. The misty swampland where Gail Russell slouches her shoulders and sees through men with her pretty blue eyes is filled with watchful faces. These characters - and they are characters - know the score around town to a degree they don't let on. They're odd people, but good people, too, with kind advice and sympathy.

Russell is the landscape made flesh and bone, but barely. She never completely materializes from the shadows or carnival lights around her, and like the ghost of Danny's father or the ghosts in the empty, ruined room where Danny and Gilly dance, she can't hold on to the man she loves to keep him there beside her. Danny, to Borzage's credit, can be both stupid and mean, and Dane Clark's performance begs no quarter. The movie begins like a nightmare, with a tumbling car crash, a hanging montage, and physical threats made to another man's fiancée; the fever only breaks next to Gilly or a brakeman in the woods named Mose, and never for long.

"You'll catch up with him one of these days," the sheriff says, but the movie won't guarantee it, and Russell knew better. Must-stream TV.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Shields of Spanish Leather

El Cid (1961)
directed by Anthony Mann
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

In my typically lazy post-movie trivia troll, I came across an interview that Charlton Heston did with a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - or rather, her memories of that interview, conducted at the time of El Cid's release, in the wake of Heston's Alzheimer's diagnosis. I wanted the dirt on the friction between the movie's stars, but Barbara Cloud only teases that John Charles Carter (of Illinois, not Mars) called Sophia Loren a "double helping of woman." Mutual dislike was more professional back then, I suppose.

Financed by the DuPont family as a way to sell oil in Spain without being paid in pesetas, El Cid is one pageant after the next, and if battlefield tableaus across every plain in Franco's great nation are your cup of tea, this double helping of Castilian history probably looks better on your TV than mine. My own hopes that the fizzling Heston/Loren pairing would be usurped by a sexy incestuous romance between a brother and sister who want the "triple crown" of Spain's divided kingdoms died with the death of the second brother/third wheel late in Act 1. The rest of the time, El Cid is either thrown out of court or welcomed back, holding fast to dull honor all the while.

The Chuck we know and love would never demand that King Ferdinand force Sophia Loren to be the Cid's bride, only to mope at the fireplace when his wedding night came. This kind of open-air biography is done more justice by sillier, less historical enterprises like The Vikings or Knives of the Avenger. But every roadshow spectacular has its silver lining, and here it comes courtesy of Heston's thanks to a Moorish ally at a post-battle barbeque. His mouth stuffed with roast chicken, and the rest of it on the end of his foot-long knife, El Cid can barely choke out the words: "You'll make a Muslim of me yet, m'lord."

Friday, February 18, 2011

Texas River Song

Piranha (1978)
directed by Joe Dante
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from the Squirrel Hill Library

Tubing down the Guadalupe as a kid, I used to worry about what was in the water. But it ran so clear that all one had to do was bring goggles or a snorkeling mask and see for himself. Piranha is an exercise in drive-through horror but also a love letter to Texas summers, directed by a guy from New Jersey. Taking the "all you can eat" approach favored by earlier New York transplant Jerry Jeff Walker, Dante fits every regional water sport he can find onto a thin band of Hill Country water: inner tubing; water skiing; swim races at camp; even rides on glass bottom boats with Ralph the Swimming Pig.

There are two shadow conspiracies at play, but the limestone cliffs of the Blanco, the Guadalupe, and the San Marcos rivers offer gentler entertainment than evil doctors moralizing about evil public officials. All the best jokes are shared between women, most of the time camp counselors and their wards. The counselors in particular embody the brash innocence that makes Roger Corman's protagonists heroes for the ages; when not throwing darts at Mr. Dumont's head, they offer encouragement and sage advice to the girls.

The most absurd scene puts a man and a woman on a Huck Finn raft in the middle of the river, then lets the piranhas cut the ropes to pieces. It is a horror movie, after all, and Dante and Corman are good enough to save the feeding frenzy for the kids. The sound the piranhas - pronounced "piranyas" - make is an angry subterranean buzz that's almost comforting, like a kettle on a campfire. Shots of bones stripped clean dangling from the pants legs of unwary fishermen seem shocking at first, until you imagine the June day that they filmed it. Just one more take and then let's hit the river.


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Speed + Sound

An Autumn Afternoon (1962)
directed by Yasujiro Ozu
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

I admit it. Sometimes I read design blogs and think of what it would be like to live inside a Yasujiro Ozu film. It embarrasses and shames me; I imagine my dog walking through three paper walls for a Milk Bone. When I watch Ozu's movies, I try to be careful with my navel-gazing materialism. All great directors pay attention to their surroundings, but Ozu in particular wants to see where his characters go: where they drink, where they sleep, how they get to a wedding.

Famous for his static camera, he is nonetheless able to convey all the motion and change of a daily routine in the details of a few select transitions. More than just a series of establishing shots, Ozu takes advantage of the silences between scenes to retrace his characters' steps. What do they think about while they wait for the train? For the elevator? What about the driving range at the top of a high-rise, where the wind blows breezy and cool? If the emotional shifts matter, the physical space does, too.

In An Autumn Afternoon, practical jokes are as common as pregnant pauses. Backlit bar signs and Tokyo neon provide more light than table lamps, and men spend more time drunk than sober. These are well-meaning people with minor failings, and Ozu is careful not to stack the deck against them. It is a beautiful film and a lively one - a modern tale for the modern world.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Dock Rock

Club Dread (2004)
directed by Jay Chandrasekhar
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

It's unbelievable to me that no one has scanned the Coconut Pete LP covers someplace I can find them with a one-step search, but the fact of their existence is really all the recommendation that Club Dread needs. Bill Paxton's failed Jimmy Buffett predecessor is, like Coconut Pete's resort and Club Dread in general, good-natured, vulgar, louche, and funny. The movie, presumably, was marketed towards the "unrated edition" crowd, an innocent group if ever there was one, but Coconut Beach Resort wouldn't be quite so convincingly sleazy if the Broken Lizard team didn't act like they have the same bare breast fantasies as their fans.

Better still, the body count is merciless. As the ocean tightens like a noose around safe places to hide on the island, and prominent members of the Coconut Beach staff drop like flies, I admired the degree to which I had learned enough about so many different characters in so short a time to miss them when they were killed. Like Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs, Sam Neill with a wallet full of condoms, or John Williams on steel drums, it's a whodunit with tropical style. Bonus points if you pair your screening with the full-on Dr. Jacoby (palm tree wallpaper, tinted sunglasses, silent tears) at the next in-house Halloween.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Land of the Lost

Strange Cargo (1940)
directed by Fran Borzage
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from the Squirrel Hill Public Library

Clark Gable's a thief, imprisoned in Guiana, with nothing left to steal but "a piece of freedom." His pencil-thin mustache comes and goes with the days between shaves, and he gets himself assigned to dock detail by a warden who likes to watch men try and escape through the jungle. Most of the time they go crazy instead, but Jesus, of all people, shows up disguised as a man named Cambreau to help a half dozen of Clark's friends run.

Borzage, I understand, believed completely in his own sentimentality, but this was probably not the best place for me to start. I'm always suspicious of mystical mystery men with sanguine expressions and holy equanimity, but movies love them. Here, the visiting spiritual benefactor leaves Joan Crawford to "tough it out" with a creepy rapist in the jungle, since killing the man would, of course, be a sin.

The coward who looks up to the worst of the convicts for his outgoing bluster is more interesting to me than anything Cambreau says. At least Clark is upfront with his fleshly priorities, and at least Peter Lorre signed on to lurk in his own amiable, sweaty way at the fringes. As the laughably sad M'sieu Pig, his stool pigeon worries make a believer of a man like me.

Friday, February 04, 2011

The Trials of Honest Labor

Le Bonheur (1965)
directed by Agnès Varda
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from the Squirrel Hill Public Library

A pretty French girl in a sundress on a picnic puts out a campfire with a bottle of mineral water. It's summertime, and with her husband and her kids, she participates in a Sunday scene of domesticity. Like Eric Rohmer, my favorite Frenchman, Varda makes movies about the young people around her; she considers the world a better place than some do, but one with a number of small problems that those who don't belong to the middle class ignore.

The husband works as a carpenter and the wife as a seamstress. He is happy, but believes that "happiness works by addition," and falls in love with a postal clerk. Varda lets the affair come about in an easy, believable way, in part due to her sympathies for the fatigue that any working man or working woman feels at the end of an average day. Needless to say, the movie looks as beautiful as any movie can, and if most movies were half as pretty, the modern world would be much less ordinary - which, again, is part of her point, empathizer that she is.

Mr. Jealousy (1997)
directed by Noah Baumbach
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on VHS from the Squirrel Hill Public Library

If you have a hard time making it through my effort to say something good about Arabian Nights, you'll appreciate my less complicated but no more enthusiastic endorsement of Mr. Jealousy. I saw Kicking and Screaming in college, enjoyed it, but liked Chris Eigeman better in Whit Stillman films. The Squid and the Whale was bad enough to make me never want to say anything good about Kicking and Screaming again, but there I was at the library, looking at Mr. Jealousy, and here I am and here it is.

You can see why Wes Anderson recruited Noah Baumbach to help write screenplays, why Woody Allen fans probably like him, and why Baumbach still gets paid to direct. That isn't all meant to be negative. Mr. Jealousy begins with a 15-year old version of Eric Stoltz taking his date to The Rules of the Game while the soundtrack to Jules and Jim plays behind them, and that pretty much sums up the rest of the picture. Both witty and smarmy, it's funniest when the jokes approach slapstick and center more on a sudden camera pan than anything anyone has to say.

Or maybe it's just me, and I still have a soft spot for this stuff in spite of myself. But Bogdanovich as a therapist two years before The Sopranos? Eigeman as "Dashiell Frank," the hottest new thing in fiction? The sweet-natured moralism at the heart of the movie - try to be a better person for the sake of those who love you - is innocent enough, and one can always do worse than a romance.