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Monthly Archives: June 2009

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Rest Stops, R.I.P.

Via his Twitter feed, Tim Halbur alerted me to a cool but depressing article on that now endangered piece of roadside Americana, the rest stop. I love the uniqueness of rest stops from state to state, the wild architecture (check out the photos with the article), the local historical lore. Visiting them is one of the little pleasures of traveling by auto. What a crying shame that they’re are being replaced with pee stops at McDonalds!

True story: when I was a young tyke, my family took annual drives through Nebraska to visit the grandparents. One particular summer at our first rest stop, I came across a brochure showing modern sculptures installed at several rest stops along the state’s main highway. For the rest of the trip, my patient parents made a point to visit every stop with a sculpture we could — just to indulge their art-crazy kid. It was a memorable trip. Nebraska’s 500 Mile Sculpture Garden came about during the Bicentennial; a documentary on the project can be viewed here.

Weekly Mishmash: June 7-13

The Blossoming Of Maximo Oliveros (2005). Sundance Channel recording. An endearing indie film from the Philippines that does wonders with a low budget. The film centers around twelve year-old Maxi, a swishy boy whose preferences for girlish clothes, romantic movies and Miss Universe pageant reenactments makes him a target for teasing in his ghetto neighborhood. Maxi cares for his widower dad and two brothers in a loving arrangement which becomes strained when he gets a crush on a local cop (y’see, he comes from a family of petty criminals). An unusual subject for an Asian movie, but it’s handled with sensitivity and good performances from the leading kid on down to the extras. This was shot on videotape and looks it, but the director does an excellent job of capturing the atmosphere of this shithole Philippino neighborhood. Worth looking out for.
The Hunger (1982). One of Christopher’s special favorites. I don’t think this vampire flick is very successful, but it’s strangely watchable for the über-’80s stylistic features director Tony Scott put in every scene. The casting isn’t perfect, but the blank attractiveness of Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie and Susan Sarandon actually works in Scott’s favor here. This film might have a deeper meaning, drawing parallels between the vapidity of ’80s culture and a vampire’s desire for eternal youth — but mostly what I remember are the Bauhaus song, a rapidly aging monkey and Sarandon’s hot lesbian scene.
The Life of Emile Zola (1937). Plush, old fashioned biopic became the latest in my quest to see every Best Picture Oscar winner. This was a good one, covering an ambitious story with a thankfully un-ponderous touch. The prestigious side of the Warner Bros. studio was at the top of its game here, and Paul Muni in the title role dials down his usual hammyness to good effect. As a wrongly imprisoned French army officer, Joseph Schildkraut handily deserved his Supporting Actor award.
Bette Midler - Broken BlossomBette Midler – Broken Blossom. Now I feel really gay, having downloaded a Bette Midler album. I suppose this was one of Bette’s lesser efforts, sporting only one semi-hit single (“Daybreak,” a fairly routine Adult Contemporary number) amongst a set that may have been too diverse for its own good. Actually, this album chiefly demonstrates that the lady has excellent taste. My favorites are the Ronettes’ “Paradise” and Billy Joel’s “Say Goodbye To Hollywood,” sizzling numbers produced (some may say overproduced) with girl group-y panache. The Tom Waits duet “I Never Talk To Strangers” is another highlight, more of a theatrical mood piece than anything else. I also enjoyed her sensitive versions of Eddy Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me” and the Disney standard “A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes.” Only the hard-thumping “Red” fails. Sorry, Bette, you’re no rocker.
Prick Up Your Ears (1987). Flix recording. Another excellent film that for some reason I’d never seen before. Years from scenery chewing in whatever Hollywood blockbuster paid the bills, Gary Oldman shines as the ’60s British playwright Joe Orton. Oldman portrays him as an appealing rascal, campy and lighthearted but also casually cruel and destructive. Alfred Molina also delivers as Orton’s combustive lover, Kenneth Halliwell. The film’s theme is less about gayness and more about fame and the havoc it can cause. I loved it.
Saving Private Ryan (1998). This month, Turner Classic Movies is turning over their schedule to saluting great directors. Normally this kind of thing annoys me, but I’m using it to catch up on various upper-tier movies that for one reason or another passed me by. So, now I’ve seen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. One would be hard pressed to find another film that more accurately captures the WWII experience. That opening sequence aptly conveys the random horror of combat (although it wasn’t as uncomfortable to watch as I feared). Tell me, people, how did Shakespeare In Love win Best Picture over this?
Up (2009). The results of a theater and lunch excursion on Friday. This was every bit as inspiring as everyone’s been saying. Compared with other Pixar ventures, I’d rank it behind the first Toy Story and Wall•E and just ahead of The Incredibles on the greatness-o-meter. Initially I was weary about the premise; for some reason I thought the entire film would do little more than follow around an old man floating his house with balloons. Of course, this movie is about far more than that. It’s a lot of fun, even when the story drags into familiar territory towards the middle and end (at times it felt like I was watching more standard Disney fare, like Bolt). I love that the filmmakers resisted turning Carl and Russel into familiar types; even Kevin the bird doesn’t have the standard “cute animal” treatment. On another note, this is the first Pixar that I cried at. Several scenes brought a tear to my eye, but one part in particular had me practically bawling like a baby. Even telling C. about it later, I started crying again. Guess I’m becoming an old softie.

Moment of Anger

For your pleasure, here’s Kenneth Anger’s short film Puce Moment. Shaky camera, gay adoration of artifice, ironic treatment of the recent past… nobody was thinking this way in 1949, but here’s the exception. This one actually looks more like a recent indie music video than anything else. According to Anger’s commentary, the actress who appears here retired from film to become the well-kept mistress of the president of Mexico.

Mini Me Movie Maven

Me in fifth gradeI always enjoy it when people share the childhood art projects, and never thought that I would also have that opportunity until my mother came by recently with a folder stuffed with old school photos and such. Also tucked away in the folder were assignments I did in the fourth and sixth grades. Coincidentally, both have an “old movie” theme. This doesn’t surprise me, since old cartoons and movies like The Wizard of Oz fueled my fascination with just about anything and everything produced before my birth date. Plus, I was always an artistic kid who wanted nothing more than to sit around and draw all day (the fact that I was constantly, constantly picked last for all sports team activities attested to that). So, what better way to convey my fascination with old crap than through old art?

Our first project is a homemade mask made in fourth grade art class, lovingly rendered in tempera and glitter. For some reason, I had a vague recollection of this one being of Charlie Chaplin. Actually, it was Groucho Marx. I probably never saw a Marx Brothers movie at this point, but even in the ’70s Groucho was so ingrained in pop culture that I knew enough of his distinctive look to want to make a mask of him. It’s cute:

Groucho Marx Mask

Our second project is a written report I did on the history of the movies, dated January 1981. This had both a research and oral component (for which I got a B+ and an A, respectively). Of course, the most important part for me was drawing up a snazzy and complex cover design. It had to have an Art Deco font, right? Too bad I didn’t know enough about letter spacing not to mess up the “y” in “History”:

Movies History - Front

The bottom half of the report is various caricatures of Hollywood movie stars. Although I can’t identify most of them for the life of me, I do recognize a few. See if you can find Bob Hope, Greta Garbo, the Lone Ranger, Donald Duck, Barbra Steisand, Fay Wray in King Kong’s hand, Elvis Presley, Alfred Hitchcock, Shirley Temple, Charlie Chaplin, R2-D2, Mickey Mouse, W.C. Fields, Louis Armstrong, Lassie, Jimmy Durante, Godzilla, Snow White and Grumpy, and the Beatles amongst the crowd (I think a snotty “friend” of mine drew the extra long tongue coming out of Shirley Temple’s mouth!).

Movies History - Detail

Weekly Mishmash: May 31-June 6

Complete Peanuts 1965-66The Complete Peanuts 1965-66 by Charles M. Schulz. Another fun Complete Peanuts volume. The strips collected here coincide with the apex of Peanuts-mania in America, as highlighted with a Snoopy & co. Time magazine cover in April of ’65. The first year has a few interesting storylines involving Charlie Brown at summer camp, Sally being prescribed an eye patch, Linus having his blanket shipped away to his uncaring grandma, and the ever-present losing streaks in baseball. Amusing as always, but I’m getting the first inklings here that Schulz is settling into too familiar ground. This book also contains the earliest Snoopy vs. the Red Baron strips, a theme that I never particularly enjoyed. Luckily, the introduction of Peppermint Patty in late ’66 contributed a needed shot of energy to the Peanuts gang (and her earliest strips are hilarious). For the future, I’m looking forward to the addition of Woodstock and noticing when the girl characters start wearing pants instead of dresses.
Jesus Camp (2006). This documentary is as scary as I’ve heard, and totally riveting. Chronicling a summer camp for evangelical Christian children, this film doesn’t shy away from the fact that the organization really exists for adults to drill their extremist views on adult subjects (abortion, censorship, etc.) into kids who aren’t allowed the simple freedom to grow and figure things out for themselves. Scenes where children are induced into crying and confession their sins (really, what kind of deep dark sin does a child have?) are difficult to watch. Other scenes, such as when a church congregation is urged to pray over a cardboard George W. Bush cutout, are almost too bizarre to believe. This was an extremely well-made documentary that doesn’t hit one over the head with an agenda; it simply shows what it shows with a chilling straightforwardness. The camp uses a lot of warlike imagery and brainwashing techniques that mirror what extremist Muslims do to groom kids to become suicide bombers and such. I take comfort in how, since this film’s 2006 release, the camp in question has been discontinued. Now I’d love to see a sequel, if only to find out how screwed up these kids became as adolescents.
Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus PhoenixPhoenix — Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. I went for something brand new with my third iTunes album. This is an invigorating indie rock set, along the same lines as Phoenix’s previous one (It’s Never Been Like That) — only more tuneful and diverse, a signpost of the band’s evolution. It seems inconceivable that this is the same group that I first heard ten years ago doing slick, Daft Punk-inspired disco instrumentals, but here’s to progress. “Lisztomania” and “1901” provide a bang-up opener, and they go into intriguing ambient territory with the two-parter “Love Like A Sunset.” I also loved the unusual stop-start structure of “Countdown.” The vocals and guitars are sharp as ever, even if they get into a few samey sounding tunes toward the end. Perhaps not the defining summer soundtrack that everyone says, but excellent nonetheless.
The Signal (2007). Unusual indie horror story told in three distinct segments by different directors. The first segment, detailing the first few hours after an unexplained radio/TV signal turns half of L.A. into homicidal maniacs, is potent and engrossing. Were it that the rest of the film was that creepy and cool, but it quickly turns into a rote effort in which characters do inexplicable things for no good reason. The second segment takes a whiplash-inducing turn from comedic to ulta-gory, and the third segment was just plain boring. Oh, well.
Stand and Deliver (1988). Part of TCM’s Latino Images in Film fest from last month. A pretty standard “inspirational teacher” tale elevated by Edward James Olmos’ commanding lead and an appealing supporting cast. The students too quickly transform from barrio brats to studious braniacs, but I appreciate how each kid gets sympathetic vignettes into their diverse home lives. Although I never saw this movie before, strangely enough I remember Mr. Mister’s theme song back when it first came out — and there it was, during the closing credits! My brain is incapable of holding anything like calculus equations, but it sure knows its share of cheesy ’80s movie themes.
The White Sister (1923). Beautiful but plodding Lillian Gish vehicle in which she plays an emotional woman who turns to the nunnery when her soldier love (Ronald Colman in his first film role) goes missing in Africa. The fact that this movie clocks in at almost two and a half hours in an era when most features were barely over an hour might tell you something. Gorgeous photography on location in Italy adds a sumptuous look to the proceedings, and Lillian looks absolutely luminous in several close-ups — but the story is so damned old fashioned and it goes on forever. I’m going to have to pick a better silent next time.

World’s Creepiest Videos

In the annals of memorable claymation music videos, I count Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” and the considerably less famous “Another Kind Of Love” from Stranglers singer Hugh Cornwall among the greats. I can remember being seriously creeped out by this one when it originally came out (I also remember MTV blurring out the breasts). As it turns out, the video was directed by the acclaimed Czech filmmaker Jan Å vankmajer.