Friday, March 29, 2013

The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker

Busting (1974)
directed by Peter Hyams
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
watched on Netflix Instant

Union Station (1950)
directed by Rudolph Maté
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
watched on Netflix Instant

Busting is a 3 going on 4, but Elliott Gould and his handlebar mustache are a pair of fives in the company of straight man Robert Blake. The sun was out and it was one of those days when I could imagine lucking upon easy double features like Union Station and Busting between now and the 4th of July. I can't believe there was ever a time when I couldn't summon up random classics on demand.

Union Station, set in Chicago, was filmed in LA, and it's a great movie about... Union Station, with a contained crime caper tucked into the foot lockers. Lyle Bettger approaches Jefty levels of maniacal glee as the bad guy, tormenting the blind girl he kidnaps and wondering why her dad would ever pay a six-figure ransom to get her back. Meanwhile, Mr. "Mary Kate Danaher," née Barry Fitzgerald, winks his Irish Inspector's eyes every time a cop roughs up a bum for information. My favorite scene had him mixing cocktails at his kitchen counter: a splash and a stir and a glug of rum.

Busting is a cynical picture but graceful in its defeatist's perspective.  In Dirty Harry, cowardly political bigwigs won't let an honest citizen draw his gun, but Busting doesn't draw the line at bureaucratic bloat. Almost everyone is susceptible to some level of corruption; in the long run, the good guys are simply outnumbered. Surely Delaney Williams took some inspiration for the role of Jay Landsman from actor John Lawrence. And McNulty - well, we can't all be Elliott Gould.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

From Miami to Rancho Mirage

Hour of the Gun (1967)
directed by John Sturges
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid can ruin a man for other westerns, and Jason Robards hasn't faired too well since I first saw him digging up gold as Governor Lew Wallace while Pat polishes off the brandy in Santa Fe. Hour of the Gun feels like... times have changed. Whatever historical record Sturges wanted to correct with regards to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the underlying moral question here - "Is a badge all that separates a killer and a just man?" - is simplistic even by the standards of 1967.

As a point of comparison, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was released in 1962. Five years! James Garner always seemed like a TV star to me, which he was (the Josh Holloway of horse operas), but he's lived long enough to be regarded as a great actor. He isn't. He spends too much time alone as Wyatt Earp, riding his horse out of town while Doc Holliday takes a drink in a bar. They get together every so often and worry about Ike Clanton's gang of criminal cattle-rustlers, but I like Ike's ranch the best, where Robert Ryan growls with charisma and passes out six-shooters.

Or maybe I'm being too hard on everyone. Maybe it doesn't matter what kind of movie you make, as long as you can get United Artists to pay for you and Lucien Ballard to go watch the desert together in the state of Durango. When Wyatt isn't speaking, or Doc walks outside, that band of hills in the distance looks just like the Sandia Mountains, and the sunlight out there is something else.


Monday, March 25, 2013

Scrogins Acres

The Beguiled (1971)
directed by Don Siegel
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
watched on Netflix Instant

The Beguiled sounds like The Uninvited, which is to say it sounds like a ghost story. It isn't, not explicitly, but no one is ever really alone in her room. The movie begins with an image of Abraham Lincoln from the Civil War, and the whistle of a train comes in on the soundtrack. A twelve-year old girl picks mushrooms in the woods, and finds a wounded Union soldier growing out of an oak tree hung with Spanish moss.

Rather, he is stuck - shot and fainted - but that it isn't what it looks like at first. Clint Eastwood sings a song, but not on camera: a tuneless, unaccompanied rendition of "The Dove She Is A Pretty Bird." The song hangs and flutters in fits, like a crow tied to the balcony with string. The girl lives in an old plantation, and she is the youngest in a group of women under the protection of a headmistress who tries to keep them safe from the dangers of a war-torn world.

The girl's age is relevant because Eastwood's character kisses her, both to keep her from screaming (he is a Yankee and Confederate soldiers are close) and because he can. She leads him back to the house - past the iron, enchanted gates of the seminary - where he is returned to life and mended. But John McBurney is not an honest man, and brings about a great deal of trouble.

Shadows ebb and flow. Someone is always lighting candles in some corner of a room. I don't think I've seen another Malpaso production quite like it. The movie is more than a "Southern gothic" about repressed female longing and more than a parable about war. McBurney is a confidence man, but a trickster, too - something nearly supernatural.

He is only ever seen by the women in the movie, except for the man who shoots him. But that scene is told in flashback. I thought of some minor deity walking invisible through a battle, interfering with mortal man to pass the time. Perhaps a bullet meant for someone else finds the small god instead, and alights on the one spot where it hurts him. He is trapped someplace he did not expect to be, and languishes there, and, like all bored gods, wants his revenge.


Friday, March 22, 2013

About This Same Time of Night

Baby the Rain Must Fall (1965)
directed by Robert Mulligan
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

I don't look at the top of my Netflix list too often; I like to be surprised. But I'm also forgetful. Only yesterday, I received a DVD in the mail that featured, as best I could tell, two completely unrelated movies: Man Friday, a role-reversal take on Robinson Crusoe, and Raise the Titanic, an adaptation of a Clive Cussler novel. Uncertain about the state of mind that compelled me to request either title, I couldn't for the life of me remember which of these two films I at some point wanted to see. I took a gamble on Man Friday and lost.

So what do I do today? Walk right into the same wall, this time an adaptation of a play from the 1960s instead of the 1970s. Ugh. There ought to be a law. Robert Mulligan directed To Kill a Mockingbird, of course, but also The Other, a "creepy kid" horror film that I watched in October. It was a colorful movie but an eerie one, and that's not usually my favorite subgenre. Maybe that got me here.

I will say that Mulligan (via Ernest Laszlo) shoots nighttime well. He gives the impression that other people are out and about after dark, in a neighborly way - that the streets aren't quiet, but full of folks sitting on porches or walking home. These nights are still warm even after the sun sets, because it's hot in small-town Texas.

Baby the Rain Must Fall was filmed there. The opening credits are great, and we should all be lucky enough to sit beside Lee Remick on a bus out of Tyler. But as soon as someone talks, it doesn't sound like a movie or real life at all. It sounds like something on a stage, and Mulligan's interest in the downfall of a "string band" singer is purely intellectual, which is why the Billy Strange dubs of Steve McQueen's voice look so bad.

I like Horton Foote in theory more than in practice, but he understood the openness and defensiveness of rural conversation. He didn't trust old-timers, either. The moment when the little girl says "yes ma'am" to the sheriff and gets corrected by her mom is a funny little-kid thing to show.

On a related note, how many times am I going to order Sorcerer from Netflix, only to realize, when the disc is in the tray, that the only available DVD is pan-and-scan? Two, so far.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Duck's Guts

Mad Max (1979)
directed by George Miller
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

Stone (1974)
directed by Sandy Harbutt
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

I tried to figure out something interesting to say about Stone that a guy named Mick hasn't already covered on IMDb (his one and only review), but I couldn't. When I read about the movie's influence on Mad Max, I walked up to the library to make it a double feature. And I'm glad I did!

It's an obvious double feature, but a nice contrast between good feelings and a great movie. Stone features pretty girls, burger joints, and motorcycle races in the summer sun. The plot defers to this holy trinity at least three out of every four minutes. "When you're 18, off your nut on drugs," writes Mick, "and that Z1 starts up with the baffles removed at the beginning of the movie, it's mind blowing!"

In my next life, I'll do it right. But my grandmother baked me a cake on my 18th birthday, and I missed the boat on Stone. I'm just too old.

But no one's ever too old for Mad Max, the best title for anything since The Great Gatsby. I realized, for the first time, that all of Ozu's movies are shot from the same perspective as a roller coaster. George Miller is an Ozu fan, but he corrects for speed.

The dystopia of Mad Max is less the expected post-apocalyptic wasteland than a recognizable rurality. People still eat in cafes and get their cars fixed by mechanics. Families take vacations. If you love the desert, it's beautiful. If you love words? Toecutter, scoot jockey, hoon.

Toecutter is an incredible villain, all charm. You think that he'll get the best of pretty Jessie in the forest  - that fairy tale forest, improbably large, between the farm and the beach - but he doesn't. She makes it to the water and back again. You think he'll get her then, by the barn. But the old woman saves her, Rachel Cooper gone to Australia.

But then they hit the highway. And Max Rockatansky is somewhere else, too slow. George Miller was a surgeon before he directed Mad Max. He saw a lot of death and he wanted to make a picture about the dangers of the open road.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Another Water-Sports Question

Enlightened - Seasons 1 & 2 (2011, 2013)
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
watched on HBO GO

Enlightened is a strange show.  Critics talk about Matt Weiner when they talk about Mad Men; every script goes through the boss.  But cult of personality aside, Mad Men is polished - lots of smart women in that writer's room - in ways that Enlightened is not.

Enlightened is messy, and erratic.  It follows different formats from episode to episode, season to season.  Sometimes it's a sitcom, sometimes a series about recovery, sometimes funny, often not.  Some of that looseness is intentional, but not all of it.  The second season, for example, is more focused in its narrative arc, but only, one assumes, because HBO said so.

Mike White wrote every episode.   I'm naive about television production, but I assume that uncredited writers looked at his scripts.  Maybe not.  But the show is personal in a way that really does feel rare.  I like that feeling, even when I don't like the show.

I don't always like the show.  I like it least when Amy's at the office, where it seems like I've seen everything before: co-workers, humiliations, jokes.  Enlightened isn't a comedy, especially in season one.  It's something much weirder, with intentional contradictions and drifting unhappiness.  Everyone is burdened by the act of living.  Amy offends as often as she doesn't.

I love Laura Dern; if the scripts aren't collaborative, the show is.  We see Amy as the person she thinks she is even when she's a wreck, or when she's wrong.  I love that Mike White lets his characters be eloquent inside their own heads - all of them - even when they aren't when they talk to other people.

"The Weekend" is my favorite episode, gentle and forgiving.  I'd forgotten about Luke Wilson, or assumed the worst.  I won't say that Enlightened checks in on Anthony Adams after twenty years, exactly, but Levi Callow contains multitudes, among them the uncanny impression that life and art have intersected in an apartment in Pasadena.  Levi and Amy make a great couple, and a sad one.  They're the best thing about the show, but I'm sentimental.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Call Retiro 2046

Night Flight (1933)
directed by Clarence Brown
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

I love stories about the early days of commercial aviation: daredevils put out to pasture after the first World War, strategists with eyes for an empire in the clouds.  In 1933, John Barrymore wouldn't want the role of a pilot.  He'd want to wear a suit, to keep his hands free for declamation.  Stuff some working stiff into the cockpit to fiddle with the throttle.  Ground is where the action is!

Thus, the hand-wringing board of directors of Trans-Andean European Air Mail anchors the episodic structure of Night Flight, instead of someone like the less "cerebral" Clark Gable, too busy jumping from a Douglas M-4 to his doom.  In twenty-four hours, a serum used to treat infantile paralysis must make it from a clinic in Santiago to the hospital in Rio de Janeiro.  To travel so far so quickly, pilots have to fly over the Andes and up the coast of Argentina in the dark.

Despite the South American setting, "European" is the tell, as it provides a nice excuse for internationally-minded Americanos like the Barrymore boys (John and Mister Potter) to fulminate at one another on a well-appointed soundstage.  That eventually leads to this sound advice about pilots, regrettably not shared in a whisper while the brothers stay up late in bunk beds: "Admire them if you want to.  Love them, even.  But never let them know it."

Clarence Brown achieves a remarkable sense of scale in two shots, one of a parachute, filmed from above, disappearing into clouds, and the second, filmed at sea level in the midst of a storm, of a small navigational flare that loses its way.  There's no death more romantic than an angry ocean, and so pilots go to glory while Riviére... gets a raise?  Calls Errol Flynn?

By 1939, Geoff Carter was a pilot first, manager second.  The first aviator we meet in this movie shows up on the runway minutes before takeoff, behind the wheel of an heiress's roadster.  He leaps from the car in his tux and steps right into a flight suit.  And what does the heiress say as she kisses him goodbye, when he chides her and tells her she won't be faithful?  "I don't trust zippers, they work too fast."  But zippers and assignments are out of his hands; he serves at the pleasures of people far away.


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

When Sheets of Rolling Smoke Involve The Skies

The Sign of the Cross (1932)
directed by Cecil B. DeMille
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Bible epics are first and foremost great excuses for old-fashioned Hollywood excess.  It isn't the penitent pilgrim that someone like DeMille really cared about, but the wicked life that brings ruin (and, eventually, if the producer insists, redemption).  The Sign of the Cross begins with Nero, played by Charles Laughton as a wide, waxy candle melting upon a throne.  He slurs, he tunes his lyre, and the camera pulls back, and back, and back, and all around the emperor, Rome burns.

What a start!  Hail Caesar!  Hail Fredric March, prefect of the city, smitten with a Christian girl, against all sense, all reason.  For two hours, DeMille does what he can to persuade us, to convince us that Marcus Superbus, with his silly name, is a fool: a fool to fall for proper Mercia, a fool to leave Nero's wife soaking alone in her tub.  The tub is the size of a bedroom, a house, a shrine - a shrine to Claudette Colbert, mercurial temptress.

The film is famous for that bath, and for the "Dance of the Naked Moon," although both scenes were supposedly edited from distribution prints for years.  DeMille's sense of artifice is complete.  All we see of a torture chamber is a hole in the floor, and smoke, shadow, and flame.  The Christians meet in secret in ruins on the outskirts of the city: layer on layer of imagined antiquity.  Lions move across the frame like schools of fish, too numerous to count.

"Morpheus give you deep slumber," intones March, en route to a tender rendezvous.
"I'd rather have exciting dreams," Poppaea replies - a dream like The Sign of the Cross.

In the end, the prefect makes the perfect argument against too much "next life" hullabaloo.  The Christian god is not the first to be called the one true god, he says.  There will always be hundreds with such a claim.  But Marcus believes in Mercia: in this woman beside him, this woman he loves, here on earth, right now.  No future, no past; it's like something out of Alphaville.

He dies like a sap, of course, hand in hand with the zealot who has his heart.  They go to their zealots' deaths together, the curtain call at the end of a long, exciting day at the coliseum.  Nero's time will come, we're told.  We know this from history.  But it doesn't, not here.  Not in this movie!

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Beast People's Jailer

The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)
directed by John Frankenheimer
rating: 1 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

I wanted this to be fun.  It isn't.  I read the coroner's report: Val Kilmer wouldn't cooperate, Marlon Brando was worried about French nuclear testing near his private Pacific atoll.  Why couldn't that be the movie?  Marlon traveling by boat from Queensland to Tetiaroa?  Even this dull anecdote of a bidding war over shipwrecked flooring would be better.  At least we'd be in Tahiti!

No one comes across as likable, in either the post-mortem or the actual production.  David Thewlis' Edward Douglas begins on a strange religious tack, moralizing about his host's behavior and questioning the aim of "science," then segues inexplicably into the sensitive romantic once Moreau is killed.  Douglas is the hero, as such, but can only ogle Fairuza Balk (no Panther Woman, alas) before she is violently, summarily executed by the island's new inhabitants.

Moreau's death lets Moreau off the hook as a well-intentioned patriarch who made mistakes, and transfers the role of true antagonist to Kilmer's Montgomery, a drug pusher and a user.  He incurs Moreau's wrath by bringing a dead rabbit to dinner and smirking in his chair, and you can just imagine the sort of guy that Joanne Whalley married in 1988.  The orgy Montgomery hosts in honor of his own ascension to the throne is embarrassing; all that's missing is "1996" spelled out in neon behind the bar.

In case you're wondering, this made me more likely to watch Burt Lancaster's turn as the Mayonnaise-Covered Man in the South Pacific.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Your Men Are Obsolete

Soldier (1998)
directed by Paul W. S. Anderson
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Last fall, I watched Alien vs. Predator, my first Paul Anderson movie.  It was great.  He brought back Lance Henriksen, played fast and loose with characters and franchise mythology, and emerged with an unpretentious, easy-to-like action film.

The train was speeding down the tracks by then, but better late than never.  Engineer Dave Kehr called Anderson "one of the last fully committed genre filmmakers" way back in 2011.  He meant, I'm sure, the genre of Milla Jovovich.  The Resident Evil franchise fell like dominoes from my queue.

Anderson, it turns out, only directed two of those: the first and fourth.  He directed the fifth, which isn't out just came out on DVD (so I haven't seen it), and he's directing the sixth next year.  I guess he decided that a day without Milla is a day without sunshine.  Lucky guy.

As a director, he's best in the first half hour.  He likes to flip the script, in Soldier's case a clunker from David "W.S." Peoples (who shamelessly name-drops the Tanhauser Gate from Blade Runner.  Don't remind me!).  It begins with man-on-man chain fights and moves quickly to an off-world planet used for waste disposal.

Kurt Russell is his own brand of sunshine ("Bright!") and the slow motion tear he sheds alone is one for the ages.  Anderson isn't sentimental and he doesn't waste time.  But there's something strange, and ultimately kind of depressing, in rooting for the man responsible for Kurt's sociopathic reprogramming.

Sometimes everyone needs a better project.  Sometimes he finds it.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Maybe I'll Dream About A Man Like That

Mr. Thank You (1936)
directed by Hiroshi Shimizu
rating: 5 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

Mr. Thank You is the movie to watch in March if your winter was too long and the snow falls outside in wet clumps from trees.  It is a great open-air movie and a great movie about motion: coastlines, cigarette smoke, passenger coaches on mountain roads.  I thought of summer, and best of all, of summer films, watched late at night, full of low conversations and pretty June girls.

I can't say enough about the camera.  Forward images melt into reverse shots while the eponymous driver waves from the front seat.  The bus from Izu to Tokyo travels like a benevolent spirit - a kind word made manifest.  It moves as gently as a canoe adrift on an empty lake.  When it stops, and it does from time to time, travelers step off the road and stretch their legs while children sail rocks into quiet canyons.

There's room in my theory of forms for meditations on the passage of time, but I like movies that elide my worries with a man reclining, wordless, at a village station.  I like movies with cars and motorcycles, movies with cameras that float right behind.  The driver promises to bring some music back from Tokyo for a teenager who flags him down near the pass.  "With just one record," he tells a stranger, "all the village girls can have a good time.  There's no other entertainment up here on the mountains."

It is remarkably kind for a movie about a changing world, and very beautiful.  "Kind and handsome," says the driver's outspoken companion, between smoke rings and sips from a flask.  "No wonder the girls on the back roads are crazy about you."

Monday, March 04, 2013

Happy Nights Are Here Again

Vamps (2012)
directed by Amy Heckerling
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

I still can't believe that this is the first movie to use that title.  If vampirism is really just an atmospheric excuse to talk about mortality, then what fun is a vampire who can't see the charm in living forever?  Aren't Alicia Silverstone and Krysten Ritter the perfect pair of undead parables, out on the town each night and winking across their coffins at the boys they both bring home?  That's all these ladies do, as if that's all there is to the world.

And why not?  Vamps is a silly movie, and the script makes it too easy to see how self-conscious Amy Heckerling must feel about losing her touch.  But it reminded me of Midnight in Paris for positive, commendable reasons.  The best is Vamps' thoroughly modern admission that no place on earth is as interesting as a big city, which is to say that there's nothing like other people - lots of other people - to make life worthwhile.

If you can buy 65 year-old Richard Lewis as a kind of memento mori for lost youth (he's perfect), and you're old enough to know by now that people change, then you're just like me.  You'll smile at the youthful liberal Goody fell in love in the 1960s and be pleased as punch that he remains a liberal today - her heart's desire after all these years.  Goody's last act is a true sacrifice: she's still young when she goes, and that's a lot to give up to see someone happy, even the man of Larry David's dreams.