Saturday, April 30, 2011

Sunday at the Arcade

Blow Out (1981)
directed by Brian De Palma
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

I love Brian De Palma's movies, and I heard so much about Blow Out without ever being able to rent it on DVD that I expected the cinematic equivalent of a plate of enchiladas at Padilla's. But that out-of-print tag is a will o' the wisp, and as good as Blow Out might be, Body Double is better, and that's been available on home video for years. It isn't a matter of preference so much as an example of a director refining his skills. Blow Out is broadly cynical (corruption and cover-ups surround us) but still stymied by the fictionalized account of Chappaquiddick that anchors the plot. Travolta's Jack Terry is swept into the mess primarily because he believes that a wrong was committed that only he has the resources to right in the public eye. Nancy Allen's Sally, initially a pawn, keeps his attention, but whether or not Jack falls in love with her seems secondary to his moral mission.

It's a moral film, and inevitably, kind of preachy. In Body Double, obsession is the motivating factor for the protagonist's bad decisions. With fewer real-life headlines to distract the audience, De Palma is able to imagine a world that feels more like a half-scary, half-ecstatic dream than most other pictures I've seen. Dreams are a lot more fun than the Kennedys, but there's plenty to enjoy about Blow Out anyway, from the tactile, almost sensual impression of soundcraft in a movie studio to the charms of John Travolta at 26 and especially Nancy Allen at 30.

Mary Duncan was five years older than Charles Farrell in City Girl, a movie I just happened to watch recently and loved. The difference in age is a clue about great directors and how they make movies. What it says, I'm not sure, but little things - like a scream - add up.

Friday, April 29, 2011

There Go the Next Seven Years

The Blue Gardenia (1953)
directed by Fritz Lang
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Now, Fritz. Fritz knew something of the world (just look at this photo of his Berlin flat), and however far a man might get with God at the Frank Borzage family table, well - Los Angeles is different than Paris, let's say. Even a German could see it.

In 1953, I Love Lucy turned two years old. Elizabeth Short died in 1947, Lang became a naturalized US citizen in 1939, and the Polynesian Pearl Diver might never have existed at all except in this film. "We'll discuss my mistakes over those cocktails," the sleazy portrait artist intones, and so distraught does Anne Baxter find herself over her abandonment by a soldier in Korea that she takes the wolf up on his offer.

Two plucky roommates both warn and try to stop her, or at least let her know who to blame if she's raped (not him). One's a bookworm with an eye for the secret life of murders, and the other is wise, for all her flirting, to the charms of a man with a steady income. While Harry Prebble tells the waiter "don't spare the rum," Nat Cole sings the title song from a piano in a restaurant that looks like the South Pacific.

Later, when his date is nearly dead for drinking, Prebble props her on his sofa and plays a Cole recording - the same recording - on the stereo. It's oddly discordant, seeing how relevant that record proves to the plot, but mostly as distraction from a grisly, drawn-out rape attempt. Baxter's trauma, in turn, is marginalized the next morning by her suspicion that she may have killed the man, but what the public - the movie public - really wants is a mystery with meat to it, and a Hunsecker type is only too happy to play along.

Frankly, Lang seems more interested in the premise of the wrong man played by a woman than any overtly feminist sympathies, and it's the "pretty girls ask for it" patter that keeps The Blue Gardenia about as steady, thematically, as a river of lava. But you don't hire Nicholas Musuraca if you don't love women who drink in bars. The tone of Baxter's entrapment might by 180 degrees from that early, quiet encounter in Nightfall, but lovely is lovely, and the right heartless, lanky bartender a good measure of a director who probably never "got" the way that Ricky Ricardo treated his wife.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tonight I Am the Bank of France

7th Heaven (1927)
directed by Frank Borzage
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

7th Heaven begins in a sewer beneath Paris, where Chico longs for the street washer's life above ground. War is imminent, but girls occupy his daydreams. When one shows up, Chico thinks her brown hair and cowardly disposition are a joke from the god who doesn't answer his prayers, but a priest intervenes and, like Jaqen H'ghar from A Song of Ice and Fire, leaves Chico with a few "religious medals."

That priest could well be Borzage himself, never one to leave a man and woman alone to fall simply in secular love. Paris looks like something from The Arabian Nights - minarets and chimney spires - and the skyline above Chico's apartment looks like a matte painting... until Chico disappears into it. The "climbing the stairs/falling in love" sequence is as light as a balloon, ever rising to the blue French sky, in spite of the director's leaden insistence that all this be a metaphor for more than an airy heart.

In the wake of their chance encounter, Chico rashly gives the girl a place to stay and hide from her sister. He steals a few sheets off a neighbor's line for a nightgown, and the next day Diane gets right to work at playing house. They go out at night on a drunk's rickety streetcar, and along their narrow pathways above the city marvel at the carefree life of an honest working man. That changes, of course, and someone has to go blind before God makes His Glory known, but there are moments when the movie anticipates L'Atalante for the sort of transcendence I prefer, which is a beautiful woman in the modern world beneath an empty moon.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Ham Chowder

In the Soup (1992)
directed by Alexander Rockwell
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

In the Soup dates itself through an early-90s triangulation of earnestness, light comedy, and wearing one's cinematic influences on one's sleeve. Alexander Rockwell could moonlight as a director of commercials for the Empire State Tourism Bureau, but even if he doesn't, there are enough "only in New York" eccentricities in In the Soup to fill a cab all the way to New Jersey. But I won't be mean; in spite of the sap, the agreeable warmth of the premise finds a groove to help pass the time.

Steve Buscemi, looking like a Bowdoin-era Matt Lieber, is funny. He's even handsome. I wanted to say it was nice to see Seymour Cassel in something not directed by John Cassevetes or Wes Anderson, but looking at Cassel's long list of credits on IMDB, it's clear that the fault for not watching him in anything else lies only with me.

Camaraderie is everything in a picture like this, and I couldn't help but think about Cassel, and his career that I mostly don't know about, and his years in Detroit before Faces. Do he and Philip Levine know each other? Do they get together and talk about the desert in California? Or crack jokes, probably.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Lucky Throw of Bones

Your Highness (2011)
directed by David Gordon Green
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at AMC Waterfront 22

I made the mistake of reading a review of Your Highness last Friday, and spent a week worrying that a movie I'd looked forward to for nearly a year was a flat-out failure. Maybe the Academy Awards soured America on James Franco, and I've heard from reliable sources that the second season of Eastbound & Down isn't what the first one was. I may not love David Gordon Green the way I used to, but if this sequence makes your top two Daniel Desario moments in Freaks and Geeks, then you have nothing to fear from the gentle Your Highness.

Both half-assed and sincere, it affirms my faith in the sort of man who would follow up one hit comedy by traveling to Ireland, meeting with top production designers, and outfitting his friends with chain mail and leather in service of a giggle-strength one-note joke. After the reviews, I imagined a mean-spirited crassness that never materialized amid walls with eyes and wildfire vulgarity. It's funny that Charles Dance didn't even need to change his clothes for Game of Thrones when the cast and crew of Your Highness went back to the States, but here he encourages his two sons even as he expects next to nothing from the "youngest."

In the end, it isn't as if Danny McBride watched Krull or The Beastmaster with Ben Best just to make outrageous comments about Tanya Roberts on the red carpet. James Franco might not be a sword and sorcery guy, but there's something genuine in the collective effort to not just hit the touchstones of early-80s fantasy film, but to actually make a Beastmaster of their own. It's intentional, I think, that McBride - instead of Franco - pulls the sword from the bones of a unicorn: Franco never dreamed about that stuff as a kid, but Danny McBride probably did. Kissing the A-list actress is a part of the same game.

Even if it isn't great, I loved it. And give Franco credit for playing Fabious fast and easy (and Simon Farnaby credit for best post-Powers hairstyle). The three witches are more than absurd; they're fun.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

From Pittsburgh to LA in One Kentucky Mile

Justified - Season One (2010)
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Did the joys of Deadwood distract me from Timothy Olyphant’s grip on a pistol or a cup of coffee? It’s like he can’t stop picking things up, and each time he gets his hands on a file folder in Justified, I’m reminded of a bird’s wing, or Noah Cross at the crime scene, or the way that Nazis smoke cigarettes in the movies. Everyone jokes about palm trees in Scranton on episodes of The Office, but when did the desert come to Harlan County?

I’ve been accused of digging up excuses to “justify” the bad shows I watch instead of letting them be what they are, and I know that I’m tough on early seasons. So don’t expect more than the pithy comments already provided in exchange for your time today. There’s no doubt I’ll be queuing up Season Two along about this month next year (strong women? Count me in!), but let’s cross our fingers that Betty Draper gets the love she deserves before then.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Vanity Plates and Underage Dates

The Venture Bros. - Season Four (2009-2010)
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

In 2003, The Venture Bros. was a riff on the Space Ghost joke that boy adventurers were imprisoned inside the Hanna-Barbera cartoons that made them stars. Rusty, the son of an alpha male misogynist, struggled with his failures as a scientist and a father, while Brock the bodyguard cut up henchmen for fun. We met the arch-nemesis, then his wife, and what seemed like a hundred (a thousand!) other characters. When they spoke, they shouted, and so over-stuffed were the scripts that they must stack twice as high as any other half-hour show on TV.

Brock, as blunt as a man can get, was the perfect ambassador, in a way. He’s voiced by Patrick Warburton, who also voiced played The Tick – a superhero send-up whose villains had more than a little in common with guys like Monarch and Henchman 21. The Venture Bros. is as colorful as taffy, and each time those jokes about Rusty’s psychoses stretched about as far as I could stand, the show’s creators folded them back and pulled again.

At this stage, Rusty is more like Kenny Powers than Dr. Katz, but he lives in a world where every vulgar creation is loved. The episodes are a madhouse, and watching six hours at a time (the only way to greet each new half-season release) is like melting that taffy down into sugar water and joining the hummingbirds in la-la land. Hank and Dean are my Franny and Zooey - kids with money and a lot to say.