Thursday, March 31, 2011

My Heroes Have Always Been Funny

Rancho Deluxe (1975)
directed by Frank Perry
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
watched instantly on Netflix

I haven’t read any Thomas McGuane, but his screenplay for Rancho Deluxe sounds like a lament for a world that doesn’t really exist, and never did, padded out with a few jokes and the occasional group romp in the hay. It would be better if the jokes were front and center, and the eulogy an afterthought, and also if the father/son issues weren’t there at all. I can’t accept Sam Waterston as an Indian no matter how far down on his head he wears his hat, and the idea that “men’s men” like McGuane would even try to pass it off seems silly.

Time was, I'd argue that if Jimmy Buffett died after A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean, people like me – alright, just me - would embrace songs like “Grapefruit-Juicy Fruit“ for the same reasons "we" listen to Jerry Jeff Walker. But no, Rancho Deluxe is the middle of 1975, and here’s Buffett with a mustache, mugging like his manic Yacht Rock caricature. He doesn't seem any less at home than any of the actresses, who play drunks or professionals, and if a Harry Dean Stanton/Richard Bright pairing as Curt and Burt, respectively, can't save this Livingston crowd from itself, then it's goodbye to rural ennui and hello suburban encroachment.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

In an Alternate Universe, George Bailey’s Brother Went Pro

Blades of Glory (2007)
directed by Josh Gordon and Will Speck
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

There’s no need to make a mountain out of the molehill of box office gold that is Will Ferrell’s career. He seems like a weird guy who would overstay his welcome if he ran into fans at a bar (“Is he actually getting in the car with us?”), and in my experience, the random interjections that make a movie like Anchorman funny aren’t funny forever. But there’s a kind of half-assed genius to Ashley Schaeffer, and Blades of Glory seems like a nice little cross-stitch on the embroidered pillow that includes both The Foot Fist Way and Eastbound & Down.

Ditto Will Arnett, who rarely recaptures the insecurities that made Gob lovable in his walk-on roles as random privileged assholes. Compare his date with the wife on Parks and Recreation to her romance with Louis C. K.’s gentle cop; Arnett isn’t just a contrast, he’s stuck in a rut. Add to that the next in a long line of movies that exploit minor celebrities (fashion models, local newscasters, magicians) for laughs, and what do you get?

More laughs, if truth be told. Blades of Glory shouldn’t work, but does. Maybe because the onscreen team-up of Ferrell and Jon Heder embraces gay marriage by way of a straightforward pitch for an unconventional pairing. Or whatever. If some of the people can be part right some of the time, then I guess this is what you get when they click.

Monday, March 28, 2011

True North

Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008)
directed by Sacha Gervasi
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

When asked about the influence of Anvil, it’s obvious that "Lemmy" Kilmister from Motörhead can barely remember the band. In some ways, that makes his the most appropriate of the celebrity interviews that begin this plus-sized episode of Behind the Music. Few bands stay together as long as Anvil, adds Slash, but he means that few friendships last as long as that of Robb Reiner and Steve Kudlow. Anvil was more than a lead singer and a drummer; “the band,” in its original incarnation, broke up.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil isn’t the story of Anvil so much as the story of two amigos who rely on one another when everything else in life is wrong. There is no comeback because success is irrelevant to the bond that Reiner and Kudlow share. These are adventurers and free spirits who struggle with addictions and whose lives did not go the way they planned. The first half hour is touching not because it's sad to watch a rock n' roll frontman take out garbage, but because it lets us share the routines of two best buds who are lucky enough to live in the same city.

I'm not convinced that Kudlow is any happier in front of thousands of fans in Japan than he is at his own 50th birthday bash in a bar in Ontario. I love that Anvil sounds great in the moments when we get to hear them play. It would be silly to say that the music isn't an extension of the men, or to begrudge the group the renewed interest that the documentary no doubt delivered. But with or without Ian Scott, Lips and Robb would still be pals, and they don't need me to tell them that.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

How to Rent a Backlot

Nightfall (1957)
directed by Jacques Tourneur
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Aldo Ray looks like my mother’s father in a photograph taken during a geological expedition out west (or maybe Canada) before World War II. In the snapshot, my grandfather wears a beard. He could have played professional baseball in Cleveland, but an uncle encouraged him to go to college instead. My grandfather died when I was young. He was a gregarious man who loved The Three Stooges, and when I see him in photographs like the one I’ve described, I can picture a baseball uniform on his tall, stocky frame better than the suits he later wore.

It’s difficult for me to remember my grandfather’s voice, but he almost certainly did not sound like Aldo Ray. Still, I thought about that part of my life once Ray thinks back on a camping trip with a doctor friend from Chicago. Tourneur took the time to find real snow, and the trout Ray fries with butter and breadcrumbs is one of those onscreen meals I’d like to eat for dinner. Aldo Ray is a revelation, and Anne Bancroft in her early twenties on a crowded bus from Los Angeles to Wyoming is so beautiful in the tall seat beside him that you aren’t sure if you remember a rear projection shot like that from a movie or a dream. They meet in a quiet Los Angeles bar, with plush booths and just the right space for an intimate drink.

Plenty of noirs pit a man against the world, but here the pursued protagonist has more friends than he knows. Jacques Tourneur made movies that were closer to tropical weather than anything like a technical exercise. It’s a bad metaphor, but watching them, I’m reminded of soft breezes along the Gulf of Mexico, a coastline I love. Eerie moments and lonely moments appear like mysterious offshore lights or falling stars, but the surf keeps crashing and, danger or no danger, there’s no better sound – and no better director - for a good night’s sleep.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Platform Apology as Late as the Train

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)
directed by Mikio Naruse
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

It’s easy to wax rhapsodic about the shot composition of an Ozu film, or to express surprise about the modern dilemmas that characters struggle with in An Autumn Afternoon. I feel like I shouldn’t have to engage a movie like this with a preface or explanation, but more than likely that’s a consequence of my reading less and less film criticism as I get older. I’m suspicious of my motivations for doing so (academic scholarship so often has a point to prove, or to force), but it boils down to the idea that I spend more time thinking about movies than talking about them.

After all these years, I can’t pretend that I’ve graduated much beyond my teenage conception of the “foreign” section at the local Hollywood Video. Everything about When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, from the title to the language to the black and white execution, goes against the breezy joy I profess to experience when I sit down to watch a movie. The four cravats aren’t there to fool you, or me, but I still appreciate the untouched Netflix queue, when I don’t know what I’m getting next until the e-mail (and then the disc) appears. Half the time I groan, but I still come across some gems that way – movies I never would have watched if I followed my erratic impulses exclusively.

If a video store in Pittsburgh starts to carry the Warner Archive Collection, I might cancel my subscription and do nothing but live in the shadow of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite pictures from the 1970s for a month or so. But until then, you’ll have to slog through Naruse like the rest of us. And yes, there will always be movies in the foreign section that exemplify how hard it is to be a woman in a man’s world, but very few actresses that star in them will be as good as Hideko Takamine. It can’t only be martial arts assassins that we fall in love with, since it’s so rarely that way (not never, mind you) in the real world.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Paul Krugman Unwinds with a Picture

Carlos (2010)
directed by Olivier Assayas
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
watched instantly on Netflix

If Carlos is the punchline, we still have to choose our favorite joke. Would Vince or Billy audition the actress that Ilich Ramírez Sánchez seduces with a hand grenade? What’s the difference between a Mediterranean suntan and a romantic weekend in Paris? How much time can we spend at the firing range with all these awesome guns? Geopolitical crimes are one thing, duplicitous human nature another, but sometimes that acquaintance you can’t avoid who won’t shut up about deficits or Hugo Chavez just wants to watch The Terminator like the rest of us.

I hope so, at least. I’d rather watch Carlos than Summer Hours (the truth is, I wolfed down all five and a half hours of the “miniseries” version in two back-to-back sittings), but fans and critics can agree that in the end, they’re the same. It isn’t self-awareness Assayas lacks, but a sense of humor. The cuckolded German sidekick doesn’t count. Édgar Ramírez, man of a dozen mustaches and the requisite biopic weight swings, seems different that way, but he’ll have to keep the pounds on and team up with Benicio del Toro in my submarine-based buddy movie (Depth Charge Sarge) to prove it.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Sickle the Ivories

Hangover Square (1945)
directed by John Brahm
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

I tend to think of studio-era Hollywood adaptations as improvements upon slight and formulaic source material. Plays for sure, but novels, too. Even Raymond Chandler might know his way around a setup, but nothing on paper beats that actress (the actress, not the character) in the antiquarian bookstore in The Big Sleep. I’m kidding, kind of. It isn’t nearly so tidy as that, but given the right rainy day, I’ll always take the motion picture. I count on movies, not books, when I’m blue.

In this particular case, however, Hangover Square isn’t even an adaptation – not really – so little does it say about drinking or loneliness. But it would be wrong to dismiss it outright. It’s a horror movie, is all, and deserves credit for its original scares. The first is the use of Guy Fawkes Day as the cover-up for a murder. Crowds gather to build a bonfire, and George Harvey Bone hauls the body of his victim up a ladder, then heaps the woman – masked – grotesquely atop the pile. Her pretty, broken body goes up in an instant, the fire so hot that the public square around it clears.

Bone later kills himself inside a similarly spectacular immolation, but this time he’s accompanied by a group of musicians who gather for a performance at the home of a wealthy patron. Bernard Herrmann composed the score for Hangover Square, and as far as I know, this is the only instance in movies in which the orchestra that provides the music that brings the film to a climax actually participates in the scene. The music is meant to give us some insight into the frenzied state of Bone’s mind, but he can hear it as well as we can, since the men who play the tune surround him and the composition belongs, ostensibly, to Bone.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Blitzkrieg Lindy

Things to Come (1936)
directed by William Cameron Menzies
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

A British Christmas begins with its complacent citizens completely unprepared for the totality of modern warfare, and as civil servants toast one another with no thought to the impending perils outside, all of London (and then the world, or Europe-as-the-world, anyway) is blown to bits in a violent fury of bombs, bombs, bombs. Chris Marker watched Things to Come, I’d bet. And why not? Ol’ H. G. Wells wrote it, and all of them – from Wells to Marker to Hitchcock to the other Welles - were obsessed with our numbered days, and our memories and dreams of life that was. Here, the survivors are brought to heel beneath local warlords, but even that takes time, so rag-tag and ruined is the populace.

Decades pass; grass grows. It’s the 1970s before the burned-out skeleton of a single fighter plane might make a difference in regional domination, but there isn’t fuel or spare parts, and zombies show up every now and again to remind their families of past horrors. But Wells had faith in science, and gets the remaining minds together to lord their visions of peace over a mob of increasingly bored kids who didn’t know London from Munich. He means well, but utopian futures inevitably demand the same assertion of control as any unified plan, good or bad. As the protagonist’s offspring race for the stars in a ship as white as a washed-out print, one assumes that they will end their days wishing for the world they left behind, mobs and warlords and all, only to find that the past eludes them.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

A Snitch in Time Saves... Nothing

Le Doulous (1962)
directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

I figured out about how long it takes me to forget my thoughts on a perfectly acceptable Melville crime picture: four weeks. Time travel is tricky, and if you’re lazy like I am, you don’t take as many notes as you should. The truth is, I’ve got ten reviews to write to get me back to today – that is, sometime in early April – and by the time I “publish” them, I hope to share a few laughs over Justified and the last season of Friday Night Lights, too. By then it will be the middle of the month at least, and you, like me, will recall Le Doulos as one more attempt to jumpstart a dead horse with the “quantity, not quality” banner unfurled limply behind me.

Ever onward, then. When the movie was over, I made it as far as the plot summary on the Netflix sleeve and realized that I hadn’t even noticed the scene that Le Doulos is famous for: a one-take interrogation, possibly in a police cell in Paris. But it couldn’t have been longer than the tracking shot that begins the film along a sidewalk in the dark, with the sound of footsteps as they echo (and echo) off culverts and underpasses. Belmondo was too handsome to ever play a weasel, so the protagonist’s principal suspicions ring false from the first assault on his wife. I expected a movie in color, I guess, instead of a blonde chained to the radiator. But it works for what it is, which is either a gray day or a washtub once the laundry’s gone.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Aeryn Sun, You're My Only Home

Farscape (1999-2003)
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
watched instantly and on DVD from Netflix; on DVD from the Squirrel Hill Library

There's something about the way that Farscape begins - with found footage from a NASA space shuttle launch - that, along with the Jim Henson puppets, I find reassuring. I expected to be bothered by the puppets especially, but the mish-mash of materials is low-fi in a way that lets the story focus on characters.

No, that's not right. I hated the puppets, except for Pilot and the Dominar. I hate that the aliens look like Skeksis (I'm not a Dark Crystal fan); I dislike most of the sets since they seem to be inspired by late-90s Australian rave culture; and, half the time at least, I counted the minutes until the latest endangered-guest-star-of-the-week plot was over.

But as someone wisely says, "No dream is guaranteed, commander. The grace of age is that we learn to accept." A little grace goes a long way here, and just far enough to introduce the reasons why, even in spite of a main cast that I can't completely get behind, Farscape remains a classic. First and foremost, in a world where Betty Draper can't catch a break, you can count on science fiction for great female leads.

Aeryn Sun and John Crichton are a good team from the first episode. The season three "twinning" arc is as close as anything I've watched gets to a "momentary glimpse into that other reality" created when a choice is made in this one. It compelled Richard Linklater to wish he'd stayed at the bus station in Slacker; in Farscape, Aeryn is left with the memories of both worlds to John's singular recollection. There is pain she cannot share with anyone, least of all the man she loves. Her memories aren't simply a burden; they comprise the only evidence in the universe that the happiness she felt was real.

A ship with no offensive capabilities is a novel idea; a living ship another. Never seeing someone again because she's about to go to another galaxy is a smart way to deal with the idea of a pleasant one-night stand. And yes, the budget is small, but there's that observation deck where Moya's crew stares into space, and whatever they dream beyond the limits of the force field is, at one time or another, in front of them. I love that Farscape imagines that the universe is so big that no one could find his way without a map.

And surely there's no villain in science fiction - not in Star Trek, not in Star Wars - nearly as interesting as Scorpius. Both dashing and grotesque, thoughtful and manipulative, Scorpius wants what Crichton wants: a wormhole home. Once wormholes are introduced, most of what's bad about Farscape slips away. Scorpius gets in Crichton's head and Crichton fights back; they're a team but not a team. Crichton has Aeryn, and that's the difference, in the end.

Farscape does what too few ensemble shows do: lets everyone fall in love with everyone else. Most of the time, creators rotate through their cast, pairing couples off then breaking them apart, but there's a moment - in the first season, in "Nerve" - when everyone confesses his/her love for somebody, one at a time. By the end of the episode, there's so much longing in the air that heartstrings hum.

Time and patience are what Aeryn, John, and Scorpius need, or wish for. Sometimes there is enough of both, other times not. Fathers, mothers, children, and friends hang on or let go. Hearts break. John is allowed to be unlikable so often that it's a wonder he's the hero. But when Aeryn holds his hand, he is.