Monday, May 30, 2011

You Can Always Blame Me

Last Night at the Alamo (1983)
directed by Eagle Pennell
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
watched on iTunes

Last Night at the Alamo arrived five years after The Whole Shootin' Match. I don't know that the personal problems Pennell dealt with in his life were any worse than those of someone like Sam Peckinpah, but clearly Pennell didn't have the support system that some people do. You don't need to talk about the person that Pennell became to talk about The Whole Shootin' Match, but Pennell didn't write Last Night at the Alamo, and it feels, in part, like someone else's movie.

Kim Henkel of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame wrote it. Henkel plays the reticent Lionel, who proves a perfect foil to the gentle patter between Sonny Carl Davis and Lou Perryman. But Henkel the screenwriter favors short bursts of frustration over the easy grace that characterized Pennell's first feature, and the shouting and arguing play havoc with the inherent subtlety of the gathered cast and crew.

A great low-key beginning makes cars on Houston highways look like trees in the breeze. Inside the bar, those pretty Ben Carlton Mead lithographs for Pearl Beer line the dark walls. The room is as muggy as the air inside a pick-up parked outside. The world is unfair in The Whole Shootin' Match, but here it is harsh, too, in spite of the setting. Still, Pennell is someone who is able - and wants - to make Sonny Carl Davis the sort of man a Houston socialite might take for a cowboy on his way out to Hollywood. Davis and Perryman talk about the movies, sure, but the entrance of Davis - little ol' Frank - has to sell it.

Davis plays a man named Cowboy Regan, and instead of jumping off a bridge, a young barfly who might have played Billy the Kid in another world is chided for willingly jumping in the "ship channel" if Cowboy asked him to. The director appears in a pool table scuffle, barely audible in a sleeper hold but unmistakable with his sunglasses case on his belt (and bandana on his head, and mustache on his face, and his smile). Wrestled from the bar, Pennell makes it back behind the camera to capture a girl fanning her skirt to cool her legs in the midst of a "chug-a-lug" tequila contest with Hector, the proprietor of a local Mexican food restaurant. Hector loses, of course, but Pennell should have followed him back home, or found Davis and Perryman something to eat, or at least given them a few more quiet moments in the parking lot outside.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Slight Is Alright

Sherlock Holmes (2009)
directed by Guy Ritchie
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

I like Guy Ritchie more with each new picture. His iterations of Holmes and Watson might not be new, and the homoeroticism between them is as obvious in the stories as the film. And yes, there are several too many blue screen feats. But when you think about it, isn't the eponymous hero better suited for a BBC series than a Christmas blockbuster? And shouldn't Ritchie get credit for using Victorian England as an excuse to try out his latest shot of a punch in slow motion? Past adaptations appealed to closeted Anglophiles for the same reason fog and murdered prostitutes do, but Ritchie, Brit though he is, mostly sets his set designers to work on imagining the symbols of dry and dusty Egypt. Jude Law is really more of a caricature of a Royal Subject than a great actor, and Robert Downey, Jr., wherever he wanders, is squarely and always an American.

I'm arguing, I guess, that Ritchie gives us a Sherlock by way of the US of A, a sort of roundabout iteration of a character we already know and love. I mean, I can't argue in favor of the "toy box" approach to comic book franchises and not get behind Sherlock Holmes, right? I love Sherlock Jr. and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Basil Rathbone as much as the next guy. Some folks thought Sherlock Holmes wasn't fun enough, and they're right, too. But it wasn't bad.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Stadium Shade and Summer Sun

Friday Night Lights (2006-2011)
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Friday Night Lights isn't a show about Texas, teenagers, or even football - although it benefits from all of those things - so much as a show about a husband and wife. It's a show about parents geared towards twenty-somethings who, by and large, haven't raised kids of their own, and there is wisdom about the right things to say in bad situations, and honest-to-goodness advice about a great many everyday decisions and ordeals. It might ring flat to my folks (I don't know, they've never watched it), but "6 a.m. sharp means 5:45" is a line for everyone.

Keeping Eric and Tami at the forefront excuses the worst of many absurd, and sometimes offensive, subplots, which range from Buddy's struggles with a young Latino he adopts (who simply isn't there at the start of Season 3), to Landry's homicidal streak, to the creation of a predominantly African-American east-side Dillon where Coach transfers and, yes, helps restore a sense of community pride. In those moments, it's nice to meet new kids - Becky, Vince - and watch them get drunk or ask out a boy for the first time. It's good to get back on the field for some of Coach's sage advice, and it's sweet to see Tim kick around the dust of his little patch of ill-gotten land.

HBO, like AMC, is popular for television about people we don't encounter in our day-to-day life - mobsters, vampires, ad agency executives - who nonetheless say something about the people we do. And I love those shows (well, not The Walking Dead); I like escapism and swords. In Friday Night Lights, Eric and Tami talk about moving, but always come home to a small, ordinary home in a tree-lined part of town. They have bills to pay, but they don't shout about them, and when Coach needs to host a barbeque, they find a way to make it work. The Taylors' failings don't make them monsters, and aside from Landry, death on Friday Night Lights is simply, and overwhelmingly, something encountered and dealt with as the people left behind are best able to do.

In some ways it's perfect television, a show I love to hate and love to love. Its rotating cast, with the notable exception of Santiago Herrera, arrives and moves along as gracefully as Don's pitch for a Carousel. Sometimes it rains on the football field - a heavy, warm rain - and if Friday Night Lights were filmed anyplace other than Texas, the camera couldn't convey that as well. I miss Texas hill country, sure, and occasionally the oddness of my long-ago high school days. I never played football, but I watch it, and the best camera work in five seasons comes at the very end, as graceful as can be. The people we love the most - who deserve our love the most - aren't famous, but we hold them dear.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

My Gainesville, Florida, Home

Bridesmaids (2011)
directed by Paul Feig
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at Los Feliz 3

Bridesmaids is a very funny movie typified, I think, in the "flight to Vegas" montage. A worse film would be less fair to the two airline attendants that Kristen Wiig confronts, offends, and isolates. Most comedies wouldn't be as tough on Annie in that scene: left alone because she's mean. Funny, but mean. Nor does she re-open her bakery before the final credits, or even get very far with the good-hearted cop. Not much happens at all - Annie isn't the one getting married - except that she loses a friend for a few months, and feels like her life is that much worse for Lillian's absence. Which it is.

Bridesmaids is about loneliness more than thirty-something jitters, and the antidote to too much time with your thoughts and fears is pratfalls, most of the time. I'm projecting way too much, even for this blog, but I like to imagine that Maya Rudolph's relationship with Paul Thomas Anderson is based on things that make them both laugh. Sure, they're beautiful people, but the man who made Punch-Drunk Love deserves a woman like Lillian. Somehow I've managed to bring a guy into this review, which misses Bridesmaids' biggest point completely, but where would we be without each other - in the theater, at the movies, in the dark?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Window Upon Window

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)
directed by Werner Herzog
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at ArcLight Hollywood

Herzog's great charm is that he is always interested in people. Whatever doubts he might hold for the fate of mankind, his documentaries inevitably track back to faces and asides and stories. His reputation is such that it's easy to imagine him retreating into documentaries about nature - strip mining, pollution, the mess we make of things - but interviews with CEOs and Snidely Whiplash titans of industry seem anathema to him. There is already enough cheapness; better to illuminate the bright corners.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams concludes on a jarring note, but it is, as Herzog states, a postscript. He guards against complacency but pursues the opinions of thoughtful professionals and men and women with senses of humor. Herzog has a sense of humor, easy to write off as wry European cynicism, but only if you yourself are more cynical than he is. I often approach his movies thinking that I will need to keep up with him, but there is nothing oblique or vague in the love he has for the world.

He is not a sentimentalist, but an open and honest man. The Chauvet caves are an experience to share, not a secret to be passed among an exclusive few. As in all of his movies, one is very much aware of the passage of time, of age especially and the brevity of a life. The caves are a marvel, of course, but the footprints of the boy are just as interesting, as ethereal, and as sad.