Archive for September, 2010

at least some of the backlog

September 28, 2010

Top Drawer:

Bay of Angels – Jacques Demy’s Dostoevskian portrait of two compulsive gamblers who hook up and hit the Riviera casinos, with their relationship following the highs and lows, and lows and highs, of their fortunes. A platinum blond Jeanne Moreau makes abandonment simultaneously merry and miserable. The movie itself is poetry.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters – Despite being a friend’s favorite, I put off seeing it for the longest time because, well, it’s a documentary about Donkey Kong gamers.

That was a mistake.

Act of Violence – Winner about obsessive revenge, and the only Fred Zinnemann movie I can say I really like. Van Heflin plays the 1948 model of Don Draper/Dick Whitman; Robert Ryan is the cripple from Heflin’s past come back to play hell with his life. Great supporting work by a young and yummy Janet Leigh and (especially) an unafraid to show her age Mary Astor. (Astor’s washed-up prostitute could be the long-lost sister of Thelma Ritter’s Moe in Pickup on South Street.)

Wee Willie WinkieShe explains it better than I’ll ever be able to.

Solitary Man is a mid-life crisis movie that keeps its protagonist pinned and wriggling on the wall; except for one lapse during the opening credits, it does a great job of maintaining a wary distance from Michael Douglas’ disgraced car salesman. Ben Kalmen once had money, real money, but it’s gone now, along with his family and reputation, leaving him free to chase pipe-dreams and women young enough to be his granddaughters. The movie follows Ben over a downhill course lasting a couple of months, just long enough for his Pierre Cardin shirts to grow weathered and unshapely. He’s a survivor but he’s also a self-destructor, and he winds up taking a variety of beatings. Has he learned anything by the end? Jenna Fischer is terrific as the daughter who’s futilely trying to steer her dad into port; ditto Mary-Louise Parker, as an ex-lover who you really don’t want to mess with.

Good Stuff:

Mesrine – Biopic of the French bank robber Jacques Mesrine, who was such a bad-ass cross between Dillinger and Houdini that the French police finally said “Fuck it” and assassinated him on a Paris street corner. A four-hour gangster movie should leave a stronger aftertaste than this one does, but when it’s on, there’s no place you’d rather be. Some great work from Mathieu Almaric, Olivier Gourmet (who’s become the French Lon Chaney), and Cécile De France, but Vincent Cassel as Mesrine runs away with the show.

Five Star Final – Punchy 1931 newspaper flick from Mervyn LeRoy. Edward G. Robinson is the editor of a bottom-feeding tabloid, and his push to boost circulation destroys an innocent family. Good throughout but it really comes to life near the end when Robinson and Marian Marsh deliver soliloquies boiling over with grief and rage; these speeches are in a class with Sheila Reed’s haunted inflection of the line “What have you done with his body?” in Brazil and Helen Mack’s despairing takedown of the reporters in His Girl Friday. They put goose-bumps on you.

Mystery Street – John Sturges’ realistic murder investigation procedural, shot in Boston and its environs in 1950. Like Mann’s Border Incident it sports a Ricardo Montalban performance that’s so intelligent and charismatic that every Latin stereotype should’ve dropped dead from embarrassment. Happily, it and Act of Violence were released on a single disc; if you’re into noir even a little bit, this one’s a no-brainer.

We Own the Night – The director James Gray can sound like a shallow L.A. huckster when he talks, but the man makes good movies. Two People was his first great movie, one that finally shrugged off his Lumetian fascination with gray institutional corruption set to a low urban hum (you’d have to be a Lumet fan to make a movie—The Yards—about crooked subway train repairmen), but he’s always crafted fine characters, lined up serious acting talent to play them, and given them great settings to strut their stuff. We Own the Night, a movie which reverses Michael Corleone’s character arc, has all of this plus two first-rate action scenes: an utterly dazzling assassination in a driving rainstorm and a life-or-death foot chase through a wind-whipped canefield. Robert Duvall and Mark Wahlberg play the top cops, who happen to be father and son, chasing a Russian drug dealer; Joaquin Phoenix is the family’s wastrel second son, who has ties to the mobster. Gray develops his characters with painstaking attention to detail and realism, yet sometimes shoves them into preposterous situations. If you can get past that, you’ve got a good time ahead of you.

Tropic Thunder – Robert Downey, Jr. got all the praise for wearing blackface and talking in Redd Foxx’s voice, but Brandon T. Jackson—a real black actor—got all the lines that actually made me laugh. The movie spins a variation of the genre impersonation that made Adaptation’s last 20 minutes such a slog, but Tropic Thunder not only succeeds, it keeps the gag whirling for an hour or more. The stupidity of the characters played by Downey, Stiller, Black & Co. is done so gracefully it’s finally kind of lovely.

Also: Temple Grandin, Starship Troopers, and Jacques Demy’s Lola and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Worth it:

Macon County Line – Inept and dull explo fodder until its last 20 minutes, when a decent thriller comes jumping out of the movie’s chest. Among other things it employs the subjective monster-cam that’s usually credited to John Carpenter, seven full years before Halloween came out. It also made me see Max Baer in, if not a new light, at least not such a dark shadow, for Jethro Clampett both produced it and played the increasingly psychotic deputy. He has a dilly of a moment when he explains to his young son how segregation is “just easier”; those words and the sweet, reasonable tone he couches them in have, I’m sure, echoed across the kitchen tables of our land in numbers past all reckoning. Buttoned up in his Southern deputy’s uniform, he’s closer to my vision of Lou Ford than Casey Affleck will ever be.

Also: Larry David’s Sour Grapes and Jacques Audiard’s Read My Lips

Man, I Don’t Think So:

Once Upon a Time in the West – Woody Strode could’ve charged money for people just to come look at him: in the first five minutes of this thing he’s more beautiful than Brando was in Streetcar, more regal than Michelangelo’s David. And then Leone kills him, just so we can watch Charles Bronson for three hours. Duh! Morricone’s beloved score tips again and again towards bombast and sentimentality, and Bronson’s eye-averting impersonation of a harmonica player doesn’t help the situation. (Couldn’t Leone see this was a problem?) The less said about Cardinale’s flared nostrils or the script that seems written by a committee of glue-sniffers, the better. The deepest feeling comes from the one player who’s never been a name to American audiences: Gabriele Ferzetti, as the pathetically crippled railroad tycoon. When the dying robber baron lowers his head for a drink of filthy water, it’s the one time the movie rises to its reputation.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Something is rotten in the state of Sweden. Misshapen, overlong, and a manipulative load, Girl is art-house torture porn; like Shutter Island, it uses the Third Reich as a red herring just because Nazi torture equals yummy tony fun. I just hope the book everyone’s been reading on the subway is better in some crucial way than this thing. If it isn’t, Western culture is in bigger trouble than I thought.

Wonder Boys – I saw it when it came out but couldn’t remember much about it—got curious again after Solitary Man. Bad move: it’s cinematic Dad Rock. The slap-happy affairs, the transvestite pickup, the dead dog in the trunk, the piling up of Life’s Little Coincidences until we arrive at contrived solutions for all our problems…I mean, yuck. I didn’t like this jive when it was called The World According to Garp, and I don’t like it now. If we really did hear Neil Young singing “Old Man” whenever different generations share a bonding moment, life would be a Hyundai commercial. And who needs that?

Breast Beating

September 27, 2010

So here’s the thoroughly charming duet with Elmo that got Katy Perry booted off Sesame Street:

The great bogeyman “parent protests” won this battle just by showing up on the field: to save itself a headache PBS caved in to a handful of puritanical whiners, leaving the hard work of defending free speech and common-sense to some other luckless sap. (It’s sure to be the saddest lesson kids will learn on Sesame Street this year.) Since no normal pre-pubescent child would ever notice Ms. Perry’s chest without some helpful adult writing F-I-L-T-H across it with a Sharpie pen, the parents are clearly registering their own reaction to her body. And because (unless you have a thing for Elmo) it’s all occurring in the most innocent possible context (even the song is a plea for emotional constancy), these prigs really are saying that the tops of a young woman’s breasts are objectionable in themselves—which, I gotta say, is both mind-boggling and kind of exciting, because it’s also very, very dirty. In fact, if anyone here can explain to me how, except by degree, this is any different from the Taliban and all of their crazy-ass shame-based bullshit about the female body, there’s a plateful of blueberry pancakes in it for you.

Meanwhile, over at Slate the professional busybody Emily Yoffe (aka “Dear Prudence”), who earns a living by solving “problems” that would make the average Somali laugh bitterly in your face, is busy having this exchange:

Dear Prudence,

Two colleagues and I own a business. We are all good friends and do great work together. Our dress code tends to be somewhat formal, but we don’t have a specific uniform. One of us has been showing up lately for professional events braless, very obviously so. This concerns the other two of us, because we have a relatively conservative clientele, the market has been extremely cutthroat for the service we offer, and we always want to put our best foot forward. Is one of us “nipping out” a big deal? The two of us who wear bras have been trying to dress by example, but our third colleague doesn’t seem to notice. Should we mention it and, if so, how? Should just one of us take her aside? Or should we drop it?

—Mountains out of Molehills?

Dear Mountains,

There you two are, trying to put your best foot forward, but all anyone notices is her bouncing chest. If her lack of undergarments is so obvious, your female clients are going to wonder what’s up (or not) with your partner. And your male clients are going to have a hard time focusing on your actual message when she’s sending such a distracting subliminal one. So she doesn’t feel ganged up on, before the next presentation, one of you should bring up the two of hers. Do it with as little drama as possible. Say something like, “Marissa, we’ve noticed that at the last few meetings, you’ve been going braless. That is just not a professional enough look for the image we’re trying to convey. So please truss up your gals.” Let’s hope she takes to heart that you’re just being supportive.


Is there a single line of this drivel that doesn’t make you want to spew? It’s all so neutered and boringly affable, it’s like the verbal equivalent of mom jeans. Note that we’re never given any information that would be actually useful in diagnosing the situation, such as which industry the women service, what kind of “professional events” the colleague is attending, whether the clothes she does wear are appropriate, whether any clients have complained about her, and whether or not she is known to have cost the company a penny’s worth of revenue. Instead we’re treated to that ghastly faux collegiate tone and a snotty assertion—“All anyone notices is her bouncing chest”—that isn’t backed up by even a whisper of evidence.

But other parts of Prudie’s advice caught my eye, too, beginning with: “[Your] male clients are going to have a hard time focusing on your actual message when she’s sending such a distracting subliminal one.” You want to know somethin’? A long, long time ago, back in the 1970s, there were these funny creatures running around who were called “feminists”. Oh, they were a pissed-off bunch of bitches alright, but if you listened to them long enough they began to make a lot of sense, and one of the things they made greatest sense about was how their actions didn’t necessarily mean what men might want them to mean. A lot of women back then didn’t wear bras—some to make a political statement, some to make a statement no bigger than “I don’t like the damn things”—yet somehow the engine of capitalism didn’t come flying off the rails. More to the point, if a man ever suggested that a woman’s bralessness was actually a “subliminal message” to him, he was usually disabused of the notion with extreme prejudice. Indeed, this happened enough times that guys eventually began to understand that a woman showing up braless—at school, in a meeting, or even on a date—didn’t necessarily mean that she wanted to break in a box-spring with them. In fact—and here was the gargantuan leap—it might not have anything to do with them at all.

And then there’s this:

So she doesn’t feel ganged up on, before the next presentation, one of you should bring up the two of hers. Do it with as little drama as possible. Say something like, “Marissa, we’ve noticed that at the last few meetings, you’ve been going braless. That is just not a professional enough look for the image we’re trying to convey. So please truss up your gals.”

Yeah, that’s the ticket, baby! Work her, but don’t let her feel ganged up on, even though that’s exactly you’re doing. And keep the drama down, for heaven’s sake! If crazy ol’ “Marissa” is willing to walk around in undergarments of her own choosing, God knows what psycho reaction she and her giant floppy tits might have if you simply approach her with your concerns. (She might even have a reasonable comeback to your objections.) I swear, if any adult professional woman thinks a line like “Truss up your gals” is anything other than sick-making in the extreme, having a braless colleague is the least of her problems. She needs to forget about doing grown-up things like running a business or slagging her friends in Slate, and stick to watching Sesame Street.

Unsettled Conditions

September 23, 2010

I ain’t been posting lately because—well, partly because I haven’t felt so hypnotized by any subject that I just had to write about it, and partly because I’ve been on the funky side of things of late, and I was tired of putting up those damn stop-gap picture posts and so on. About ten days ago I ran into a guy I used to know from The Expansion (the bar I used to shoot pool in, and a place I spent way too much time and money in for about five years) and while kicking around those days Rick mentioned how “ratty-ass” I was back then—talking about my anger-level and how just kind of temporized and jimmy-rigged my life was in general. When I’m feeling good about things I tend to think I’ve left Mr. Ratty-Ass well behind me, back in Houston or in North Beach or wherever, but really, he’ll probably always be lying just below the surface like the big stinky catfish that he is. There’s also been a vexing health issue (nothing super dire but a drag nevertheless) at the same time that a couple of friendships have been mutating in unfamiliar directions, and all of it’s been just enough to give me a nice case of the blues. (Some things are eternal, though. Pap’s newest thing is riding me to find him a place where he can buy discount cigarettes even though his emphysema is worsening by the month. When I mentioned the conflict this created for  me, he came right back with, “Uh-huh, now listen: I need to be able to do this with a credit card or debit card. Don’t make me do this by check.”)

Anyway, this is all by way of saying that I haven’t ditched this place—Stella’s just searching for her groove, is all. I’m heading for Austin next week for a few days of R&R with some old friends, and movement usually acts like smelling salts on me. ’sides, who knows what’s going to happen before then…

11:58:05 a.m.

September 14, 2010

Yesterday I was filled with despair, but today it’s only a wistful sense of futility—that’s got to be some kind of progress, right? Maybe it’s because the pitcher in Starbucks had exactly enough half-and-half to fix my brew the way I like it, or maybe I just had a bad case of the black ass yesterday. It doesn’t matter—nothing’s changed. I’m not going to do anything to “improve” myself, I know that much, because I’ve looked at all the options and they all disgust me. I’m not going to take dance lessons or audit any classes in animal husbandry or join Toastmasters to “open up” some new side of myself. There aren’t any sides, just like there aren’t going to be any romantic slow-mo runs to the dry cleaner where “she” is picking her clothes up, no winning lottery tickets, no being discovered by a benevolent billionaire. Maybe the old man’s right, maybe I should set my sights on some lonely old bag, just take her for every cent she’s got and skip off to Europe. I bet France would feel pretty good on money like that. Buy some threads and visit the goddam castles of Spain, or I could charm my way into some social circle, then beat ’em out of whatever dough I can get and bring that scene crashing down, too. Yeah, that sounds just about right. Let’s go—

feeling it

September 13, 2010

Weegee Does Tom Blog

September 10, 2010

Notes from the Underarm

September 9, 2010

A rich Nixon tape here. It has some choice bits of the man’s blinkered and bigoted rationalizations, but I’m posting it mainly as a great bull session between the big guy and his two most devoted pets. The general subjects are All in the Family (early enough in its run that it was still possible to get the lead character’s name wrong) and homosexuality—which, and let me repeat this, Richard Nixon did not have any moral problems with. He did not. Fags just sickened him—that’s all.

The Odd Couple

September 8, 2010

How bad are the Oscars? How about this bad: even when they do something absolutely righteous, they can still turn your stomach. It’s been known for a week or two that the Academy wants to give Jean-Luc Godard one of those honorary Oscar doohickeys, and when the decision was announced it actually hit a soft spot in me, for if there’s one sure bet in this world, it’s that Godard’s feelings about the tinseled, self-congratulatory, power-stroking side of Hollywood are no pose or put-on, but represent a case of unalloyed Pure-D Real McCoy disgust. Surely, the Academy’s decision-makers understood this, too, just as they must also understand that there’s actually a negative percent chance that the 80-year old director would fly all the way to California just to thank a bunch of dozing, half-drunk millionaires.

And yet they did it anyway. Well, bully for them, I thought. I like people who can climb down off their high horse for a good cause, and Hollywood has no better cause than letting the most important director of the last 60 years know that, however much they courted William Friedkin and Clint Eastwood in that time, they’ve always kept one eye on him and his accomplishments. That they’d give this skinny little avant-garde frog the same award that Gish and Chaplin and Bob Fucking Hope all took home, knowing full well what mischief he could wreak with the opportunity should he choose to—well, it all bespoke a bigger, less hidebound Academy than I’m used to seeing. I liked it even better when I heard they’re giving the same award to the film historian Kevin Brownlow, a move showing that someone’s definitely awake at the switch.

As it turns out, though, the train is pulling back into the same old station. There was no risk, no big moment planned after all. The awards for Godard, Brownlow, Eli Wallach, and Francis Coppola are all to be handed out in a separate ceremony in November, three long months before the televised gala that everybody in the world thinks of as “the Oscars”. This would be a pisser even if it affected only Wallach—a Hollywood man if ever there was one, he’s still answering the bell at 94 in The Ghost Writer—but this is the thanks Kevin Brownlow gets? That freaking Godard gets? Well—fine, then. To paraphrase another bunch of undervalued losers, “You can take your trophy and shove it straight up your ass.”

Just to prove I’m not a hard-hearted man, here’s some news that’s a little more encouraging to the human spirit, the obituary for Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine, passed away age 91:

In 2004, Inspector Pine spoke during a discussion of the Stonewall uprising at the New York Historical Society. At the time of the raid, he said, the police “certainly were prejudiced” against gays, “but had no idea about what gay people were about”….When someone in the audience said Inspector Pine should apologize for the raid, he did.

The context of that apology gets fuller airing in this account, which also contains Pine’s classic line: “If I had known that Judy had died at that point, I wouldn’t have had the raid.”

“Attack” (1956)

September 6, 2010

It’s a punchy little WW II flick from Robert Aldrich. An American company is assigned to take a town from the Germans, but its captain is so shit-scared of dying that his decisions begin chewing up the lives of his men. Eddie Albert is the alcoholic weakling (and closet sadist), Jack Palance is the lieutenant who’s ready to take up arms against his C.O., and Lee Marvin is the Kentucky bourbon-sipping colonel who schmoozes everybody because he wants to be a politician after the war. It’d be memorable if it had just settled for its half dozen scenes examining the effect of some really ugly cowardice, but it goes further, tying together personal and institutional cowardice in a way that couldn’t have made the Army happy, and once Albert starts breaking under the strain it wanders into some surprisingly gnarly territory for the genre. There may well be other WW II movies about GIs who put more thought into fragging their C.O. than killing Germans, but I sure haven’t seen them.

Demy, more!

September 4, 2010

Three by Jacques Demy: Lola, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and Bay of Angels. All three are good (in radically different styles), and they’re all at least partly about how impermanent relationships can be, but Bay of Angels is the one that knocked me on my ass. It’s about the few days a pair of compulsive gamblers spend watching their fortunes go up and down (and then back up and back down) in the casinos on the Riviera. A bottle blond Jeanne Moreau plays the woman, and I’ve never seen her better. She’s just this delicious picture of almost carcinogenic heedlessness; two or three times a spin of the roulette wheel is all-important to her, and her eyes reflect the results in underplayed but intense layers of desperation or relief. It has a Dostoevsky feel—it’s just that good.

joyeux anniversaire

September 2, 2010

The James Hyman Gallery in London is honoring Raymond Cauchetier’s 90th birthday with an exhibition of his work dating from his days as set photographer on some okay films.

Son of Sam (& Steve)

September 2, 2010

I just now saw Tom Carson’s 1999 takedown of Saving Private Ryan, and there’s so much overlap between our reactions I thought I ought to clarify the point. (Man, I would love to see the original Comments thread for Carson’s article; it must’ve been his own private Omaha Beach.) And while I’m at it, I was planning to contrast some of the little vignettes that occur within Peckinpah’s and Spielberg’s gunfights, both in terms of their meaning and how they were executed, but the post was feeling long enough as it was. It’s definitely a subject I want to come back to someday.

The Eyes Had It

September 1, 2010

The White Ribbon (Haneke 2009) – “Like” isn’t the right word for it—it’s not something you recommend with the implication “This is gonna give you the warm and fuzzies”—but I was in awe of it by the end, and it has some surprisingly soft corners for Haneke.

Louie Bluie (Zwigoff 1985) – A 60-minute love letter to the blues musician Howard Armstrong, a man so charismatic and talented it’s almost irritating: in addition to playing a hell of a mandolin and fiddle, he was a fantastic illustrator who created huge, gorgeous, one-of-a-kind illuminated manuscripts packed with his writings and drawings. He was also a world-class trash-talker, and much of the time is devoted to him trading barbs with his musician friends of 40 and 50 years. It’s worth seeing just for Armstrong’s off-color woodpecker story; the older woman friend he shares it with nearly has a cardiac from laughing so hard. If I have a complaint, it’s that the movie isn’t long enough. I definitely could’ve used more of the man’s music.

Real Life (Brooks 1979) – For about the fourteenth time; I needed a laugh, and this thing’s a laughter delivery system. Among other things I prize J.A. Preston’s performance as a behavioral psychologist whose professional dignity takes a beating whenever he has to breathe the same air as Albert Brooks. It’s prescient as hell: the one big thing Brooks didn’t see coming was how willing, and then demanding, the subjects of reality TV would be when it came to being put at the center of things.

Bright Star (Campion 2009) – A movie about John Keats’ death that didn’t make me puke. For one thing the actors talk and move like human beings; there’s no slowed-down enunciation or striking of painterly poses. Cornish, Whishaw, and Kerry Fox (who’s playing matrons now) are all terrific, but Paul Schneider is the one who blew me away. His character must have fired Campion’s imagination as well: the movie is infinitely more pointed, and sadder, whenever the needling, nasal Charles Armitage Brown appears, along with all of his hang-ups and fixations, and begins making theatrical claims on Keats’ attention.

The Chess Players (S. Ray 1977) – It’s pretty far from my favorite Ray movies (The World of Apu and Days and Nights in the Forest), but it’s worth seeking out for the scenes involving the artistically-minded Indian “king” who’s stripped of his figurehead position by the pissy British governor-general. Ray grew neither pompous nor predictable with success: he feeds us the colonial history we need to know with animation that looks like Terry Gilliam’s work for Monty Python, in the middle of a many-sided tragedy.

American Heart (Bell 1992) – Kitchen-sink drama with Jeff Bridges as an ex-con and Edward Furlong as his son—the ups and downs they encounter after Bridges is paroled. Not bad but the ending is rigged. Okay, so life sucks for some people; believe me, we know.

The Good the Bad the Weird (Kim Jee-Woon 2008) – A Korean Sergio Leone homage rip-off with a sky-high budget but no storytelling ability, no characters, and no inspiration except a 40-year old spaghetti western. There’s one indisputably catchy chase scene involving four or five different parties (including two armies), each with their own agenda and each having to fight whoever’s in front of them to get at their real target; the combatants weave through, around and past each other over a vast desert plain, on horses, motorcycles, jeeps, trucks, and a train. It’s a movie’s worth of Indiana Jones adventures crammed into a single busy scene, but overall the thing’s a load.

I also watched Scorsese’s Cape Fear again. I say this the same way some men have to confess “I got drunk and cracked up the car again”, but I honestly thought I might be able to milk something useful out of it. Instead, if there was an emoticon for “rueful sigh”, I’d put it right here.

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