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Weekly Mishmash: February 8-14

The Eel (1997). Slow moving but thoughtful film from famed Japanese director Shohei Imamura (Vengeance Is Mine). Kôji Yakusho, who memorably starred in the original version of Shall We Dance?, plays a similarly meek fellow here — only this time his character is a criminal who is trying to rebuild his life after stabbing his wife to death. Yakusho creates a nice atmosphere of a small seaside town filled with eccentrics, but the story doesn’t really go anywhere rewarding and the central metaphor of the title creature (which is a cherished pet of Yakusho’s) is too heavy handed. For those willing to overlook those flaws, it’s a semi-rewarding drama peppered with some unexpectedly delightful comic elements.
Marty (1955). Speaking of unexpected pleasures. This was another vintage Best Picture that I’d never seen, so I decided to TiFaux one of TCM‘s zillion showings lately. For an Oscar winner this is an awfully small and modest movie, but it’s also so beautifully played that I believe it completely deserved its accolades (strangely enough, this is one of the few films to be awarded both Best Picture and the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival). Paddy Chayefsky’s perceptive script had gotten a prior television production, but this film doesn’t feel like an expanded TV play. Filming on the streets of New York give it a gritty realism, and I loved Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair’s understated performances (yeah, Borgnine is actually subtle in this!). Although I wouldn’t say it’s perfect, I’m happy that I finally got to see this one.
No Way Out (1950). A hard-hitting noirish melodrama that hits the mark, despite a script that ventures into smug self-congratulation. A reliably skeevy Richard Widmark plays a bigoted criminal who gets his panties in a bunch when the only doctor who can treat him and his brother is black (Sidney Poitier in his first film role). This is an absorbing story with some great supporting turns, especially Linda Darnell as a woman caught between the two sides. I liked how this film employed a lot of African American actors in blessedly non-demeaning parts. The frequent use of the n-word is jarring even today; and there are a lot of good, tense scenes along the way with a surprisingly assured Poitier. Heavy-handed for sure, but really good “message” cinema all the same.
Pet Shop Boys — Bilingual: Further Listening 1995-1997. This is my music purchase for the week, which was fetched on eBay for only a dollar. While this 1996 release pales in comparison to its predecessor Very, I found it enjoyable with only a few missteps (“Electricity” among them). Dancey and Latin-influenced, this is probably their gayest outing ever — which likely accounts for why it didn’t sell as well in the U.S. and elsewhere. The album gets off to a great start with the percussive one-two punch of “Discotecha” and “Single.” Supported with a fun Bruce Weber-directed video, “Se A Vida E” was the duo’s last stab at the kind of classic hook-filled pop tune they did best. “To Step Aside” is another good one, helped along by exotic handclaps and a mysterious sample of children chanting. The second disc is padded out with remixes and such, but PSB is one of the few artists to have worthwhile b-sides to go with their topline material — so I’d say this was a dollar well spent!
So Dear To My Heart PosterSo Dear To My Heart (1948). Like Song of the South, this is one of those lesser-known but totally charming older efforts that Disney doesn’t seem very interested in promoting. Luckily I was able to obtain this DVD through Disney’s Movie Rewards program, so at least it’s not totally unavailable like the controversial SotS. Think of this as SotS without the racial business — it even has the same star (Bobby Driscoll), the same corny nostalgia, the same midwestern earnestness that Walt Disney himself loved. The movie opens with an impressive animated sequence where ornate turn-of-the-century postcards morph into each other. After that, we get the predictable tale of farm boy Driscoll raising a black sheep with Beulah Bondi as his disapproving granny. Burl Ives is around, too, but strangely the kid’s parents are nowhere to be found (so much for family values). This film also has a more religious slant than what’s usually found in Disney fare, which might be why it’s not as heavily promoted, but the message is so sweet and underplayed that even I was won over. This was one adorable little movie, perfect for the whole family, which is more than I can say for …
Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976). I’ve been curious about this for at least twenty years now, mostly because it contains cameos from a bevy of “old school” movie stars (many of whom made their ignominious final bows here). Well, now my curiosity is satisfied — and I’m glad I don’t have to see that again. This is one slop pile of a movie, choppily directed with Madeleine Kahn and Bruce Dern completely wasted in the leads. What’s supposed to be nostalgic and evocative of ’20s Hollywood winds so shoddy looking it appears to have been filmed in a dusty antique shop — with actors to match. Morbidly fascinating to be sure, but p.u.! Even the dog sucked.

2 Thoughts on “Weekly Mishmash: February 8-14

  1. seapixy on February 23, 2009 at 3:57 pm said:

    Came across this post and thought I’d add my $0.02. Agree the movie was dreadful, but the next question is: why was it made at all? I think Won Ton Ton was the answer to another mid-1970s phenomenon: the “Benji” movies–which shared equally horrible production values, but were a huge hit with the under-12 crowd (this being a world without Star Wars, which would wash all this syrupy stuff away by early 1977).

  2. I never thought about that — Won Ton Ton is a Benji-type movie! Guess it was supposed to attract children and their nostalgic grandparents at the same time.

    Oddly, I was six or seven years old when WTTTDWSH came out, but I never heard of it until years later.

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