Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Keep Going, Shane

I watched Shane for about the billionth time last night. For those who don't know it, Shane is a Western of the cattle-barons-vs.-homesteaders variety, featuring Van Heflin and Jean Arthur as the stalwart frontier couple Joe and Marian Starrett, Brandon deWilde as their son Joey, and Alan Ladd as the mysterious stranger who takes up their cause.

Shane is one of those movies that I read about long before I ever saw it. When I was a teenager in the '70s, my mother subscribed to the New Yorker, and I read certain parts of it religiously -- the ads, the cartoons, and especially the movie reviews by the reigning goddess of film criticism, Pauline Kael. Capsule reviews of long-playing movies recurred week after week, so that I practically memorized them. That gave me a freakish reputation in college for identifying movies no one else had ever heard of, but that's another story.

In any case, Pauline disapproved of Shane, finding it self-conscious and self-important. And she wasn't wrong, but there's still a couple of things about it I like. The first is the gorgeous Wyoming scenery, with snow-capped mountains ringing the Eden-like serenity of the homestead.

The second is Van Heflin, an underrated actor who, because he wasn't especially handsome, was usually relegated to supporting roles. I particularly liked him as the drunk and disillusioned best friend in Johnny Eager. As Joe Starrett, he has a simple directness and dignity I find very moving.

The last is the theme, unusual for a Western (or indeed for any American movie), which roughly boils down to: violence may sometimes be the only solution, but it pollutes those who come into contact with it. That's why Shane, who has been trying to give up the gun, takes the final confrontation with the bad guys on himself, to keep the innocent rancher from staining his own soul. It's also why he has to expel himself from the peaceful valley afterwards.

This theme is carried out even to the sound of the gunfire. I remember once seeing an interview with Warren Beatty (was it Inside the Actor's Studio? No, a quick check of IMDb reveals he's never been on. Oh, well) in which he revealed that he and director Arthur Penn had worked to make the gunfire in Bonnie and Clyde sound the same way. And it's true, it's completely jarring. You can hear how out of place it is, how disruptive to people's lives.

Of course, there are just as many problems with the movie as there are virtues. One of the biggest is the criminal misuse of Jean Arthur. Instead of her patented sassy, wise-cracking independence, she's straightjacketed into a role where she does nothing but serve pie and say, "No, Joe!" over and over. And she's likewise burdened with a mess of short platinum-blond curls that's one of the most punitive hairstyles in all of movie history. I'm sure they did it so that she would look plausible as the mother of the tow-headed Brandon deWilde (surely the whitest child who ever lived), but it's hideously unflattering.

That hairstyle just makes it doubly hard to believe that she and Shane (himself with a hairline receding toward Arizona) would fall in love at first sight. Yet they do, and the plot depends on it. When the evil cattle baron Ryker insinuates that Shane is only hanging around because of Starrett's wife, Shane explodes with righteous anger. But it's a stupid and unearned moment, because it's basically true.

And now let's talk about Joey. I know he's supposed to be engagingly innocent and curious and winsome, but with his endless "Shane? Shane? Mother? Shane?" the kid works my last nerve. When he pursues the departing Shane across the plain with his famous, "Come back, Shane!" all I can think is, "Thank God Starrett lived and you can escape, 'cause not even an unreformed gunslinger deserves to be saddled with that annoying brat for a stepson."

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Is It Hot in Here, or Is It Just All the Man-Candy?

I meant to start out with something more substantive, but first let's take a brief dip in the shallow end of the pool, OK?

I only started watching Grey's Anatomy somewhere in the middle of this season because it follows Ugly Betty. When it first came on, I wasn't interested, because I was already watching a medical drama, ER; just as I missed the first few seasons of ER because I decided to watch Chicago Hope instead. But once I started, I was quickly hooked. Was it the witty dialogue, the interesting characters, the compelling relationships? Well yes, but mostly it was the men.

McDreamy, with those bedroom eyes and the sexy stubble? McSteamy, with that finely molded chest and that bad-boy twinkle? And Burke, with that -- well, everything? (Alex doesn't do it for me, and George? I want to feed him cookies, not make hot monkey love to him.) My swan. I spend most of the hour fanning myself. Why didn't somebody tell me sooner?

Of course, the women aren't so bad either, from Addison to Bailey. In fact, it's a major irony that the star of the show, the one all the men are supposedly hot for, is easily the least attractive of the lot. (Note to Ellen Pompeo: please eat two cheeseburgers and do something about your stringy hair.)

Meanwhile, over at Heroes, sure the plot is fascinating, the superpowers are cool, yadda yadda. But man, those guys really bring the pretty. Mohinder, you can put me on your list anytime. Isaac, I like you clean; also dirty. Peter, come here and let me tuck those bangs behind your ears. Hiro? Go sit over there next to George and I'll bring you some cookies in a minute.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Attack of the Blogosphere!

I read a lot of books. A lot. The time that most people spend on pesky activities like managing their investment portfolios, supervising their kids' education, or cleaning the house, I spend reading. I mainly read fantasy and mysteries, but I'm also interested in history, particularly regarding Queen Elizabeth I, 19th century women's fiction, and anything else that might catch my eye. I average about two books a week, not counting the ones I read online.

And when I'm not reading, I'm usually watching old movies. It's not true, as my brother claims, that the moldier they are, the better I like them. I like movies that were made within my lifetime too -- witness the title of this blog, which comes from the comedy classic The In-Laws. But I won't deny that I think the '30s and '40s rule, and everything took a sharp downturn beginning in the '50s.

And when I'm not watching old movies, I generally can find something else on TV to waste too much time on. I have enduring loves -- Antiques Roadshow, Project Runway, Veronica Mars -- and sudden enthusiasms -- Grey's Anatomy, Ugly Betty. I care whether Lorelai Gilmore winds up with Luke (she'd better!) or who's on Mohinder's list and what they can do. On the other hand, I'm past caring what's up with the Lostaways or watching Aaron Sorkin work out his issues on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

I've got a lot of opinions about the things I read and watch. A lot. But nobody in my world is really interested in hearing me hold forth about sexual politics and religion in the Wheel of Time saga by Robert Jordan or why the people responsible for the movie Elizabeth should be eliminated from the planet. For years I've kept it all inside, sloshing around in my head. But suddenly I realized that, due to the magic of the Internet, I could bore hundreds of perfect strangers with this stuff!

So that's what I'm here to do.

There's probably a couple of things you should know about me as a critic. First of all, when I don't like something, I'll let you know. I don't subscribe to the Harriet Klausner school of reviewing -- has she ever given a book under five stars? Lack of discrimination, whether positive or negative, is lazy and untrustworthy, and judging what's bad and why is useful in understanding and appreciating the good.

Also, I give spoilers. If I need to tell you that the end of a book completely contradicts the premise, I'm going to spell it out for you without stopping to worry about giving things away. Consider this your all-purpose spoiler warning.

I think that's all for now. As my sister would say, let's move the plot along, shall we?