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Monthly Archives: February 2009

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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.

Ifs, Ands or Buttons

I’m kinda slow on this one, but wanted to write about it here just the same. The marketing team behind Coraline sent 50 unique boxes to 50 fortunate bloggers as a genius promotional gambit. Here’s a roundup (via Ironic Sans, who received box #40). The boxes appear lovingly assembled and have the same creepy/cool aesthetic as the film (which I haven’t seen yet). Needless to say, I’m jealous!
Oh, and have you seen the limited edition Nike Coraline Dunk?

P.S. — Another roundup.

Tomato Dish

Here’s Veronica Lake auditioning for sleazy Laird Cregor in This Gun’s For Hire (1942). The first two minutes of this clip comprise one of those “what the fuck?” moments that made me fall in love with classic moviedom. Lake’s singing voice is obviously dubbed and the tune is a campy throwaway (Lauren Bacall had a similar bit in To Have And Have Not; lip-syncing must have been a job requirement for saucy young actresses back then). By the end, however, I’m totally charmed. Film noir needed more cute and inappropriate musical numbers, don’t you agree?

Got You Covered

A weblog of artists redrawing old comic book covers (via Drawn! of course). Interesting how many of the artists choose not to significantly alter the originals.

Weekly Mishmash: February 1-7

Artists & Models posterArtists & Models (1937). One of those “only in the thirties” movies in which grandiose and bizarre musical numbers are hung on a thread of a plot. The charms of Jack Benny as an ad man and Ida Lupino (still a few years from her “tough dame” persona) as his model friend are often enough to overcome the disjointed silliness of this film. Although TCM’s showing blacked out the first ten minutes, there was plenty else to enjoy — I loved the sequence with various famous illustrators of the day such as Peter Arno and Rube Goldberg. There’s also a strange marionette dance with the Esquire magazine mascot, and a slow number in which singer Connee Boswell’s face is unaccountably shrouded in darkness. I haven’t mentioned that hick comedienne Judy Canova lends comedic support, or the fact that Martha Raye performs in tan makeup alongside Louis Armstrong. Too fun.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (1981). Fascinating but ineptly made rock ‘n roll pic about a girl group’s rise to fame. Nubile Diane Lane leads The Stains, a trio whose raggedy music sounds like the halfway point between The Runaways and The Shaggs. On tour, they spout off anarchist messages while gaining a following of young ladies who ironically make over themselves to look like clones of their idols. A cool concept, sure, but it’s marred by an awful script and shoddy direction. Seriously, there are too many “huh?” moments to count here, which probably account for this film’s cult following. It is worth a peek, however for the many cast members who went on to bigger and better things (Laura Dern, Christine Lahti and a baby-faced Ray Winstone are all very good; Lane is merely okay). The final sequence, in which the (implicitly successful) Stains make an MTV-style video, almost makes up for the shortcomings of the preceding 80 minutes.
Ladies of Leisure (1930). This quaint antique would likely be forgotten if it weren’t for a spunky Barbara Stanwyck in the lead. In this, she plays a tough cookie who becomes a model for a rich playboy artist (Ralph Graves). Predictable as all get out and Frank Capra’s direction is surprisingly clunky; but this film proves that Stanwyck had a winning charisma about her almost right from the very beginning (this was only her third film). I also enjoyed Marie Prevost, an actress best known for meeting an untimely end, as Stanwyck’s plump pal.
The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936). Pretty good but not exceptional film about Samuel Mudd, the doctor who treated John Wilkes Booth the night he assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Warner Baxter plays Mudd with a scenery-chewing gusto which likely should have netted him an Oscar nomination. In a hasty and panicked sentencing, Mudd is sent to the unforgiving Dry Tortugas prison off Key West, Florida — a place where he’d have no chance to appeal his conviction. A historically iffy but interesting story.
Skipping Towards Gomorrah: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness in America by Dan Savage. Being a rabid fan of his weekly sex advice column and podcast, I checked this one out from the library as a diversion between more weighty books. Savage’s examination of current American mores, organized by way of the classic seven deadly sins, brims with the same offbeat humor as his other work. Although this was first published in 2002, giving it the whiff of Bush-era indignation, a lot of the book seemed pretty timely even today. Given Michael Phelps’ recent troubles, Savage’s even-handed look at current marijuana laws was fascinating. I also found myself agreeing way too many times at Savage’s “gay pride” chapter (really, why make a huge deal out of something that we’re born with?), and the opening rant on holier-than-thou conservative pundits was priceless. While it’s true that some chapters were more succinct than others, the entire book never fails to be breezy and thought-provoking.

Soda Review: Jarritos Jamaica

Jarrito’s Jamaica SodaNestled in the Hispanic foods section, my local Safeway stocks a tasty little display of Mexican bottled sodas made by a company called Jarritos. As soon as I spotted these popular drinks sitting there with their rainbow colors, I knew I had to try a couple. Already familiar with the Mexican preference for hyper-sweet everything, I knew that the strawberry variety would be delicious and I wasn’t let down. For my second bottle, I decided to go more exotic and try the jamaica flavor. How can you resist a soda named after a country? This jamaica, it turns out, is an indigenous Mexican plant. The soda derives its flavor from a hibiscus-like flower known elsewhere as Roselle. Right away I was attracted to the pleasing cranberry red of this soda. Flavor-wise, what it most tastes like is — wait for it — prune juice, with a little bit of a tea-like earthiness. The sweetness of pure cane sugar overwhelms the flavor a bit, leaving a lingering aftertaste. Overall, I actually enjoyed it. As an occasional sweet treat, this soda was muy bueno in my book.

Jarritos Jamaica Soda