Tuesday, May 28, 2013


Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
directed by J.J. Abrams
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at Waterfront 22

So Star Trek Into Darkness has little in common with anything Gene Roddenberry ever imagined or hoped for in a television show about mankind's dignity and potential. A ham-fisted allegory about the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and extralegal military strikes only reinforces how violent and destructive the movie is. Every actor tacked towards parody this time around (Simon Pegg is the worst/best offender), and the street style of future San Francisco looks embarrassingly uncool.

I'm not even an Abrams fan! If Starfleet can design a gigantic battleship capable of full operation under a crew of a half-dozen men, why do thousands of people work and die on the Enterprise? Why isn't the Enterprise--an elegant tribute to the art of production design--ever impressive enough on its own? Why bring in an attractive, albeit very British, blonde? Will underwear look the same forever?

Eh, probably. But Abrams didn't call the movie Star Trek 2, and he could have. And when was the last time Peter Weller was in anything? Has any modern American cultural phenomenon had a longer, better run than Star Trek?  Does anything come close for consistent quality? If Star Trek Into Darkness is Star Trek in name only, can't we let it go?

"Junior, give me your other hand! I can't hold on!"

Wrath of Khan is on Netflix, a login away. If Kirk, Spock, and everyone else in Star Trek Into Darkness is a shorthand and a caricature, isn't everyone, at the very least, a character who feels? The screenplay is eloquent, if not profound, about loss. When Spock says matter-of-factly that there is no such thing as a miracle, he's right, and the movie reinforces that idea. Whatever else, God is still absent in this universe. I certainly don't remember The Avengers saying anything so pithy.

Or maybe it's the uniforms. The uniforms look good!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Kiss and a Promise

It's a Pleasure (1945)
directed by William A. Seiter
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
watched on Netflix Instant

This Instant drought is getting dire. Half of the remaining 30 titles in my queue are TV shows. But what are my options? The Warner Bros. Instant Archive has 56 movies available to stream. You can buy 1300 from the Warner Bros. Archive Collection; I'd pay $10 a month for access to those! Amazon Plus? Hulu Prime? This blog's boring enough without regurgitating superlatives for Criterion releases.

Until I get through The Fall of the Roman Empire and put the two discs back in the mail, I'm stuck with small finds like It's a Pleasure. And it almost is! Michael O'Shea is like no one so much as Brad Dourif in a late-career Orson Welles fat suit—the same twinkle in his eye, the same angled grin. As hockey player Don Martin, O'Shea is perfect, slugging it out with a referee en route to a lifetime ban from the league.

All the good scenes show early, at a Canada-US grudge match in a big, grimy arena that radiates beneath Technicolor blush. Don, the big lug, spends intermission rink-side in the box of a friend, bumming cigarettes off the pal's pretty wife. Gail's bored with her marriage and happily suspects Don is pawing at her thigh, but he just wants her cigarette case and one last smoke before the third period.

Enter Sonja Henie, a Norwegian Olympic figure skater who should never have been an actor, and her dull fawning over the great man that alcoholic Don could be. As a wiser member of the Crystal Sextet halftime entertainment says in an aside, "She doesn't know what a pass is. She thinks it's a ticket to a show." But Mrs. Fletcher knows, and doesn't soon forget the unstable charms of Don Martin, and insists on making him hers.

She's the clear catch, and everyone hates her for it, maybe because everyone else—Buzz, Don's manager, ladies and gentlemen of the audience—wants Don too. He misses the boat.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Desk Lunch

Circle of the Sun (1961)
directed by Colin Low
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
watched online through the National Film Board of Canada

I recently read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (twelve years after buying a copy for a class in college) and one of the first things I found on the Internet afterwards was Circle of the Sun. Dee Brown's book was published in 1970. Robert Flaherty released Louisiana Story in 1948. Low must have seen Louisiana Story, and like Louisiana Story and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Circle of the Sun hasn't gathered much moss.

It's short–half an hour–and very beautiful to look at. Of course, "Blood Indians" seems like an inappropriate moniker for the Kainai Nation today, and early on, Low swerves a little recklessly towards moralizing in his narration, but that's like criticizing Flaherty for his faith in Standard Oil: appropriate but ultimately inconsequential. Tom Daly's edits undercut the script whenever appropriate, and whatever Low might think about the importance of tribal heritage over motorcycles and rodeos, those teenagers on bikes alongside the rolling mountains of southern Alberta speak for themselves.

Too, Low's script is only a bookend. The rest of the narration is spoken by Pete Standing Alone, an incredible conversationalist. He worked as a roughneck on oil rigs in Texas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and North Dakota before returning home to help with cattle and ride broncs. Low films him at a rodeo, at a tribal gathering, and on a rig near the reservation. Say what you want about pillaging the planet's natural resources, but there are few natural sights more physically impressive than men wrapping chains around pistons the size of city hall.

As Standing Alone moves alongside a friend alongside a herd, we hear him complement his buddy's cowboy techniques. "Not much fancy stuff with the rope," he says. "Dan doesn't like to run the fat out of his stock." That's a great line, and one of many details, like sweetgrass burning over a single coal beside a fire, or the stitching on a pair of boots worn by a man at the rodeo, that Low is good about leaving alone.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Not Bad for Home Grown

Glen and Randa (1971)
directed by Jim McBride
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Rudy Wurlitzer is one of three credited writers on this script (the director is a second), and I don't know if the story originated with Wurlitzer, or if he was just McBride's pal, or what. In many ways, it's a memorable movie: a post-apocalyptic planet still verdant with moss and tall trees, peopled by windblown survivors who don't know quite what to make of the wider world. One man decides to see more of it, and brings along his companion, who is content to stay by their Oregon brooks in Oregon forests forever.

They meet strangers—all of them past sixty—and the old men are pathetic, lost souls, inevitably mesmerized by Randa. She reminds them of someone who died, or else they have not seen a woman at all for years. The first man is a traveling entertainer, and in the beginning, the movie is like an old Western, and the magician on his motorcycle like the biplane pilot in Days of Heaven. He sets up a tent and performs a few tricks for the camp—turns on a blender, lights a firecracker, plays a Rolling Stones song on a portable record player—and afterwards tells Glen and Randa about the city. While Glen looks at a map of Idaho, the magician sexually assaults Randa. Neither Randa nor Glen reacts at all.

The next day, Glen and Randa move on. He has a romanticized artistic temperament, fumbling at questions so that he can understand the human condition, but she is more of an amiable shadow, although clearly the movie's heart. They walk to California, and meet a second old man by the sea. This one is happy just to be near them. "Do I look like Arlene?" asks Randa, dressed in his dead wife's clothes after rummaging an old bureau. But this man knows the difference, and leaves her alone.

In a different mood, I might have found the movie tiresome, but I didn't. McBride hasn't had an illustrious career, but he lets these characters discover their small revelations with patience and empathy. The movie is sad, but not aimless: a long, quiet walk in the wilderness.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Jumping Off

The Band Wagon (1953)
directed by Vincente Minnelli
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

"Made in Hollywood, USA" is better than "The End," I think, on the last frame of a movie (especially a movie set in New York). So I'll start with what I liked: the scenery. But it's more specific than that. The Band Wagon is self-referential, in that Fred Astaire's character, his fictional writer friends, and the self-involved director are stand-ins for Astaire and the film's crew. It's easy to see how the movie was influential on everyone from Jean-Luc Godard to Michael Jackson, but it isn't an easy movie to love.

That said, the Technicolor hot dog stand on "42nd Street" where Astaire stops when he steps off the train should be in the National Register of Historic Places. He buys a hot dog, then gives it to a kid, then tries his luck at the midway. Fred's feeling down because no one cares about an aging movie star. Everyone on the train from California kept talking about Ava Gardner; the paparazzi he greeted at Grand Central Station were waiting for her, not him.

Minnelli's point, in the end, is that an animatronic fortune teller is a better contribution to the world than the complete works of Christopher Marlowe (more or less). The 20th century beats all comers, and it's a fine sentiment. But take that scene on the midway. There's a song—the movie's first—but the subject isn't skeeball or cotton candy, but... a shoe shine. A shoe shine lifts your spirits. A shoe shine sets you right.

Roger Sterling would love it. The problem isn't that Minnelli subverts high art, but that times change, so Astaire's duet with a black man kneeling at his feet undoes all that modern goodwill. It's still a movie about the theater—big stage productions, soft shoes—even as it claims that theater can't compare to arcade lights on the big screen. Singin' in the Rain was released in 1952, but this feels like a precursor. 

Rainy nights on city sidewalks, like almost anything else, look especially good in Technicolor. My favorite "number" was the noir routine, mostly because the subway stage set looks just like a subway movie set, and it's always great to have a pretty stranger show up on a platform and wait for a train.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

I'd Rather Be Hanged than Work

Tristana (1970)
directed by Luis Buñuel
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

I was recently, randomly reading about José Capablanca, the Cuban-born chess player who was world chess champion from 1921 to 1927. Even his name is romantic! The not quite-South American connection eventually led me to Marcel Duchamp's Buenos Aires holiday of 1918, when he spent nine months playing chess and making his own chess set with the help of a local craftsman. Duchamp favored "hypermodern openings like the Nimzo-Indian," and that sounds romantic, too.

I felt good about chess, or a trip to Argentina, but really I just wanted to imagine a cup of coffee with Capablanca or Duchamp in a nice climate somewhere. And I decided that, if I had a time machine, one of the places I would visit and things I would like to do is Mexico City and sit for an afternoon with Luis Buñuel. I wonder if Fernando Rey was as funny in person as he is in Buñuel's movies, and I don't know if Rey ever visited Buñuel across the ocean.

I could look that up, but I watched Tristana instead. Tristana was unavailable for a long time, but many of Buñuel's movies are at the library or online. He is not a forgotten director. Tristana is like a new letter from an old friend—except that it’s a film (but it arrived in the mail!). It is everything that all Buñuel movies are, that other people can describe better than me. I particularly liked Dave Kehr’s take on Buñuel's “rigorously neutral” dreamlike style.

As Rey says here, "Dreams can be very tactless." But even a nightmare is worth it because "the dead don't dream." Long live the living, and although Tristana is not a happy or celebratory movie—quite the opposite—it is a funny movie, full of life, all thanks to lecherous, liberal Don Lope. He is the villain and a hypocrite, but Buñuel is gentle with men like that, his knife in all the way to the hilt.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Dead Languages

The Mysterious Mr. Wong (1935)
directed by William Nigh
rating: 1 out of 5 cravats
watched on Netflix Instant

I am not a very adventurous movie watcher. I almost never pick a title at random, and I rely on someone's recommendation somewhere–be it friend, critic, or random blog comment–before I strike. There are so many movies I haven't seen that I prefer a little guidance. But it's good to be reminded, from time to time, that some movies are terrible. Not overambitious, or pretentious, or condescending, but lazy and unremarkable.

I don't know that I've ever encountered a less likable protagonist than Wallace Ford's Jay Barton. Ostensibly an insistent, wise-cracking reporter, he is flagrantly racist, tacky, and mean to waitresses. Ford's "zany" facial expressions anticipated my every eye roll (he had a past in vaudeville). Whether ashing his cigar into the mortar and pestle on the counter of a Chinatown pharmacy or stealing a plate of food intended for another customer while lobbing insults at his own date, he really is something special.

The love interest is as much of a bigot as her beau, and of course they find a way to bail on dinner at a Chinese restaurant without paying for it. Between Peg, Barton, and Officer 'Mac' McGillicuddy (assigned to the Chinatown beat), it's a wonder that there's any time left between slurs for a plot. There is, but it's thin, and that's fine. The Hungarian criminal mastermind in search of the "twelve coins of Confucius" cons them all into a basement for torture eventually, and there's always fun to be found in old Hollywood dungeons.

Monogram Pictures–"that bottom of the barrel movie mill," per IMDb–has a pretty good production logo (a kind of soaring future monorail set), but this movie's contributions to history end there. I do like an effective cheap special effect, and "light coming up through a bowl of dry ice" is a fine stand-in for a shadow-casting cauldron of fire. But that really is it. Part of me can't even believe I watched it all.

Friday, May 03, 2013

The Old Magoo

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
directed by Peter Godfrey
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

This is one of those terrific movies in which an absurdly complicated setup makes room for dozens of small, wry observations about human nature and common decency. It's also very funny, and not a "Christmas movie" so much as a secular ode to the nice idea that good people believe the people they love deserve every happiness in the world. There's no way out but through with regards to plot, so I'm jumping right in.

Germans torpedo a US warship in the Atlantic. Two men survive, and by day 15 in a raft, one of them can't help but fantasize about food (a steak dinner served on the rubber lifeboat while waiter and sailor try to keep their balance). Cut to the servicemen’s post-rescue convalescence, where they sweet-talk nurses for better rations and read a syndicated column about last night’s feast by "America's Favorite Cook," Elizabeth Lane.

Better rations are one thing, but the dreamed-about porterhouse is something else—nothing less than a marriage proposal will do.

"Just how far do you have to go?"
"How hungry are you?"
"That far? Break a girl's heart that way."
"Her heart or your stomach."

The nurse says yes but can’t let her sailor spend Christmas alone (she has obligations), and she writes the magazine’s editor and asks if he’ll invite Jefferson to Elizabeth Lane’s country house in Connecticut. He will, he does, and invites himself along, too. He gets lonely on holidays in his mansion.

And that’s it. Except that Elizabeth Lane is completely fictional, and Barbara Stanwyck is a city girl who can’t cook and buys fur coats on credit. Her recipes come from an elderly, fatherly Hungarian (S.Z. Sakall) who runs a restaurant where men in love with Babs drink together. The publisher (Sydney Greenstreet!) insists on truth, and will almost certainly fire everyone involved if the conspirators (the writer, the chef, the editor, the suitor) can’t fake it.

I counted six men, at least, happy to give their hearts to our heroine. One is a sap, one a romantic, and as they all converge on a Connecticut farm with a borrowed baby, and the world collapses into gentle chaos, Sydney snacks on cold chicken in the kitchen while Felix mixes Manhattans for himself and a visiting judge. It’s a modern movie: the soldier, an “artist type” when he’s not adrift at sea, teaches Barbara how to bathe a baby. When Felix is flummoxed by the English language, he asks a black waiter for help. I waited for the other shoe to drop—for the bad joke to rear its ugly head—but it never did. The waiter helps him.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

A Certain Alcoholic Sloppiness

Rope of Sand (1949)
directed by William Dieterle
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
watched on Netflix Instant

Everyone on IMDb thinks the love story between Paul Henreid and Burt Lancaster (or between Burt and his own ego) is more interesting than the principal romance with Corinne Calvet. I always like to see an actor "introduced" in the credits, and Calvet is pretty enough, if not quite up to par as a cynic. Each time Burt, Paul, and Claude Rains share a poker table, she hovers behind them and waits her turn, last in a long line of willing suitors. (In Henreid's own words, he is "overwhelmed" by her beauty.)

Rope of Sand is worth watching just for Peter Lorre's entrance at the bar. Afterwards, he describes himself as "splendidly corrupt and eager to be of profitable service," and embraces the small glass of liquor offered across the counter. All of the cocktails arrive in small glasses, and contribute in their small way to the very fine café where the principals gather to drink beneath the shadows of ceiling fans. The watering hole could best be described as Rick's by way of a Mexican hacienda: Spanish guitars, Moroccan screens, and archways that gather a breeze. One of the great Hollywood sets.

The movie begins with three armed white men - "Colonial Diamond Company Police" - in a jeep running down a black man on foot in the desert. Although a certain anti-apartheid sentiment runs beneath the surface, Burt throws around "boy" like it's going out of style. He calls Paul Henreid "pig," and Paul, in turn, has Burt hauled in for rounds of torture in the basement. Since Sydney Greenstreet wasn't available, Claude Rains does his best impression each time he hoists a pistol in his hand.

What bugged me the most is Burt's resentment of Suzanne for what he thinks is a double-cross. A better protagonist in a better movie would love her for that, not bitterly use her toward his own ends. But he does it all for Toady (my personal pairing pick). Suzanne makes it to the boat, but Burt's heart remains in sunny South Africa, in the pocket of a linen suit that Peter Lorre first put on as Ugarte, and slept in for the next seven years.

On a personal note, I don't know whether to be sad that two-thirds of my Instant queue disappeared overnight, or to laugh because I certainly had time to watch most of them if I really wanted to. At any rate, it's back to a world in which Deadhead Miles is only on YouTube in nine parts, but that's better than nothing.