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Weekly Mishmash: June 1-7

The Dragon Painter (1919). We recorded and watched a lot of offerings from TCM’s Asian film fest this week — including this early silent with the first Asian-American movie idol, Sessue Hayakawa. In this brief melodrama, Hayakawa plays an artist/wild man who is crazed with visions of a phantom princess. The local master painter, aging and not having a male heir to pass his knowledge on to, offers the wild man his own daughter (played by Hayakawa’s wife, Tsuru Aoki) in exchange for keeping his own legacy alive. Meanwhile Hayakawa believes the daughter is his lost princess and goes even crazier. Despite being old, creaky and glacially paced, Hayakawa’s uninhibited but never overstated performance almost, almost saves the film.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007). Good documentary about the efforts of decent unemployed shlub Steve Weibe to overtake the record Donkey Kong high score long held by arrogant, patriotic tie-lovin’ Billy Mitchell. This is an unmitigated “good vs. evil” tale, but it did have me spellbound the entire time (not so much with Christopher, however). It’s amazing that people in this day and age are so invested in some archaic old videogame, but that makes the subject matter even more compelling. The principals involved are so geeky and strange (could Mitchell have been any more smarmy and evil, without twirling his mustache even?) that it’s hard to believe it’s real and not some fictionalized event.
Kurt Weill On StageKurt Weill On Stage: From Berlin to Broadway by Foster Hirsch. This book reminded me of Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney bio in that it’s an impeccably researched, wide-ranging and sympathetic book that never really gets to the meat of what made its subject tick. Although Kurt Weill is best known for subversive German musicals like The Threepenny Opera, I actually found the part of the book on his reinvention in America much more interesting. Foster Hirsch goes through everything Weill touched with a fine toothed comb, even giving fair assessments to lost and forgotten works like the 1939 Worlds Fair production Railroads on Parade. Unfortunately I wasn’t very familiar with Weill’s oevure before reading this, and that might have stifled my enjoyment of the book. Some writers know how to illuminate unfamiliar music and make it seem as if you’re in the room listening with them (Ethan Mordden comes to mind); Foster Hirsch, skilled as he is, doesn’t have that quality. In sum: I liked it, it could’ve been better.
Love Has Many Faces (1965) and The Big Cube (1969). As a faithful good-bad movie aficionado (who is still waiting for DVDs of the Jacqueline Susann adaptations The Love Machine and Once Is Not Enough to show up!), I had the distinct pleasure of viewing two later, overstuffed Lana Turner vehicles in one week. Both are turgid soapers which are more about Miss Turner’s fabulous wardrobes than anything that happens onscreen. In Love Has Many Faces, Turner plays a haughty heiress who gets in hot water when the body of one of her ex-boy toys washes up on the Acapulco beach where she whiles away the days sunning on her yacht. Although the supporting cast includes Cliff Robertson, Hugh O’Brian, Stefanie Powers and Ruth Roman (really good as a vacationing sexpot), the boring script leaves them with little to do. Mostly it’s about Lana’s unintentionally funny stabs at “acting” while looking swank in an endless parade of luxe Edith Head ensembles. Four years later, she’d be at it again in the LSD tripsploitation flick The Big Cube, playing an aging actress hounded by a spiteful Swedish-accented stepdaughter and her sleazy boyfriend (a gaydar-inducing George Chakiris). This one’s actually pretty fun at times, but once again the cast is let down with a dumb and painfully slangy script (“I belong to the Now Generation!”). Interesting that it has the polish of a major studio production, yet the subject matter is pure exploitation sleaze. Travilla designed the wardrobe for Turner and Karin Mossberg as the stepdaughter, and they both have this fabulously baroque late ’60s thing going on with lots of ruffles and hideous colors. I also liked the film’s occasional peeks at various chichi midcentury modern buildings (like Love, this one was also filmed in Mexico bizarrely enough), both of which made up for the film’s dull histrionics. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls this ain’t.
The Peach Girl (1931). This showcase for the ’20s-’30s star Ruan Lingyu was an interesting watch. How often does one get to see a Chinese silent, anyway? It’s slow-moving and the main characters’ passivity drove me up a wall, but I can see why Lingyu had such a Valentino-esque mystique for Chinese filmgoers. She’s awfully cute and comes across like an Asian Jennifer Love Hewett (I mean that as a compliment).
200 American (2003). A gay-themed drama that appears to have been made for about 25 cents with a stack of VHS tapes, this was a Christopher rental. Although the directing was clumsy and stilted and the acting ranges from adequate to crappy, the script was actually somewhat sharp. Which is better than nothing, I suppose.

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