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Monthly Archives: October 2009

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Weekly Mishmash: October 11-17

Day for Night (1973). I saw this François Truffaut film a long, long time ago, but didn’t remember much about it except for the precarious balcony set used in one of the filming-within-a-film scenes. A re-viewing reveals that while there’s a lot about this film that is dated and clumsy, it’s actually compelling and truly a love letter to how film captivates us. Truffaut does double duty as he directs and plays a director making a fictional film. The fact that the film they’re working on is a mediocre romantic drama is beside the point as the viewer follows the various overlapping stories of those both in front and behind the camera. It reminded me of what Robert Altman was doing at the same time. Truffaut has a gift for conveying depth-filled characters in not much screen time. I enjoyed it.
book_dorisherownstoryDoris Day: Her Own Story by A.E. Hotchner. I was somewhat leery about this autobiography. It seemed too bland and Pollyannaish, but now that I’ve finished it I can understand why it was a best seller upon its publication in 1975. Doris Day writes about her life, films, marriages and affairs with a candidness that helped dispel her virgin-next-door image, but it’s her engaging optimism and good cheer in facing life’s problems that comes to the fore throughout these pages. She does dwell too much on her religious beliefs and the bankruptcy court case following the death of third husband Marty Melcher (who comes across as a complete user and a slimebag). I like her earthy attitude towards working and movie stardom, and her love of animals is something to admire. Even the housewifey tips on beauty and fashion she includes in the book’s coda are fun.
Every Little Step (2008), Herb & Dorothy (2008) and Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times (2009). A good week for documentaries! Every Little Step chronicles the audition process for the recent revival of A Chorus Line, drawing parallels between the actors and the characters they’re vying for. Along the way, we hear about the original Chorus Line and Michael Bennett’s efforts to get it onstage. I wish the film had focused more on the original and not the remake, but overall it was very good. Mostly what stood out here is that young performers of today are more polished and hard-bodied, but no less enthusiastic, than their counterparts in the mid-’70s. Don’t know if that’s a bad thing or not. Herb & Dorothy was an installment of PBS’s Independent Lens about a couple who, despite limited means, became a powerhouse in the art collecting world. They hobnob with minimalist and conceptual artists, piling up pieces of art in their shoebox-sized apartment in scenes that are both touching and a little scary. Luckily their collection found a good home in Washington D.C.’s National Gallery. From a personal standpoint, watching Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times proved fascinating because we were just in Los Angeles and had a good look at many places seen there. This doc basically follows the explosive growth of L.A. in the 20th century through the family that arguably was most responsible for those changes. The angles covering the Los Angeles Times and its varying editorial viewpoints over the decades were so neat and slickly told. The film also uses a lot of great vintage footage of downtown L.A. and landmarks such as Angels Point and City Hall. Perfect.
Girls of the Road (1940). Grimy b-movie from Columbia studios is surprisingly brisk and fun. The luminous Ann Dvorak headlines as a governor’s daughter who decides to investigate her state’s problem with female hoboes by becoming one herself. Dvorak befriends a hardened traveler (Helen Mack, wonderful), gets involved in a police roundup, and discovers a secret all-female hideout in the woods. Nothing earth shattering here, but I enjoyed the interplay between the mostly female cast. There’s a lot of quasi-lesbian subtext here, especially with the tough, uninhibited performance of Lola Lane as the self appointed leader of a gang of women. I had previously known Lane in nothing roles alongside her sisters Rosemary and Priscilla; here she’s a revelation and totally fascinating to watch.
Home from the Hill (1960). Overlong manly melodrama oddly directed by Vincente Minnelli. This is a long-winded tale of a dysfunctional Texas family consisting of parents Robert Mitchum and Eleanor Parker and their tormented wimp of a son, George Hamilton. A hunky George Peppard is also on hand as Mitchum’s illegitimate son. The film had a few interesting scenes, and I love the woodsy look of Mitchum’s hunting lair (it reminded me of the basement in my grandparents’ house). Mostly, however, the film was beyond dull. I actually got more entertainment out of reading about this film’s production in Stephen Harvey’s Directed by Vincente Minnelli book (Harvey seems to have liked it better than me).

Brooke Shields, She’s A Beautiful Doll

The Brooke Shields doll commercial from circa 1981, spotted yesterday on Jonno’s Twitter feed. Sure beats that weird eyelash-growing medicine she’s hawking these days.

Wednesday: On the Beach

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And now… the conclusion of our Los Angeles trip:

  • Wednesday — This was our “beach day,” a nice way to wind down our vacation. I’d never been to Venice Beach before, and previously I’d only known the spot for its image as a hangout for surfers, bodybuilders, tattoo artists and other stereotypical Californians. That morning, we walked around the boardwalk and observed everyone getting ready for the day. It had a funky and kind of mellow vibe. One of the first photos I snapped was a shop window selling a custom-blown glass bong in the shape of Bart Simpson. Yeah, that’s the ticket. Much of this area looked vaguely familiar from being filmed for various movies and TV shows. I even recognized one building as a locale from the Linda Blair Roller Boogie movie. We searched around for a spot to eat breakfast, but the only shops available were snack joints that hadn’t yet opened for the day. Long story short, we ended up back at the hotel and having the attendant get our car (one of the annoying aspects of the Hotel Erwin) so we could take the short drive to the recommended restaurant. Unfortunately, the first place we tried was lousy. We had to wait 15 minutes before being waited on. Then the waiter informed us the muffin I ordered from the menu hasn’t been available for months. A few minutes later, they told us that they ran out of the croissant I also ordered. All we wanted was a simple, quick meal! We got fed up and bolted for another place across the street (which was better). About the only good thing to come from this time-consuming jag was the opportunity to see Jonathon Borofsky’s notorious ‘Ballerina Clown’ sculpture. Back to the hotel, we finally got our time to relax on the beach. It was nice, with flocks of seagulls, sandpipers and plovers to keep us company. I got in the water up to my knees and Christopher swam out to a rocky outcropping. It was a balmy morning and the beach hadn’t filled up yet — perfect! We walked around the boardwalk some more, eventually buying a stack of t-shirts from one of the overstuffed souvenir shops lining the way. We got back to the hotel, packed our bags, and shipped off for home on the venerable 10 highway. Of course, it wouldn’t be L.A. without at least one traffic jam, and we hit a doozy on the way out. Before passing over the Colorado River into our home state, we did one last “California” thing — lunch at the Thousand Palms In-N-Out Burger location! So ended Matt & Christopher’s California Adventure.

Tuesday: Studio Visits, Twice

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More L.A. shenanigans (including stuff from the previous day):

  • Tuesday — This was our full day at beautiful Burbank, home of the movie and television industries! Our time there actually began late in the previous afternoon. Driving in, our first stop was a bucolic ’50s-era residential neighborhood next to the Disney and Warner Brothers studios. Christopher found out the address of Mabel Monahan, the victim of famed murderess Barbara Graham played by Susan Hayward in I Want To Live! We located Monahan’s home in this peaceful neighborhood and I took pictures of C. standing in front of it (I drew the line at knocking on the door, however). Damage done, we checked in at the Burbank Best Western and ate at the Bob’s Big Boy a stone’s throw away. This is the famous Bob’s with the huge, nicely preserved googie sign out front. As it turned out, the homey and uncomplicated cuisine of Bob’s was a perfect capper to an action-filled day. The next morning, we set out for the Warner Bros. studio (also walking distance from the hotel). Originally we wanted to tour the Disney studios, but apparently Disney is very stingy about tours and one has to know an employee to get in. Hmph. Instead, we opted for a deluxe five-hour tour of Warner Bros. This tour is more intimate and involved than the basic tour we took ten years ago, allowing people inside the sound stage themselves and a meal in the commissary. It sounded like just our thing. Arriving, we found out that the tour entrance was moved from the older part of the lot into a neighboring building’s lobby. The ticket desk was inside a fancy area with a giant mall-esque gift shop and a Starbucks, which didn’t bode well in my opinion. Luckily, once the tour was under way our qualms vanished. Our tour guide was a knowledgeable industry veteran, a friendly chap who took requests from our small group of 12 on what to do. Our tram went through the studio producers’ offices (designed to look like various office buildings for shoots), a jungle with an incongruous fake snowy lake plopped in the middle, and a street filled with more offices made to look like typical suburban housing. We went through the oft-filmed area with a public park and gazebo, which was dressed for the TV series Eastwick. The tram also went through the New York City street, familiar from so many old Cagney/Bogart movies. Somebody requested going to the costume shop — this place was a wonder. Literally a giant warehouse filled with racks of clothing, arranged by style and period. I saw a section of African-inspired garments, followed by an aisle full of 1960s dresses. Next was a sound recording room, followed by lunch. I was pleasantly surprised to find that our meal was served in the executive dining room. I ordered spaghetti carbonara and peered discreetly around the room for celebrities (none were found, although our guide pointed out the head of Warner Bros. TV production at one table). This was the best meal of the trip. It even included yummy lemon cake for dessert. More going around in the tram amongst the huge studio buildings. We’re huge Big Bang Theory fans and delighted in spotting some dress extras walking around for a taping that day. We even saw B.B.T. star Johnny Galecki, smoking a cigarette under a tree located opposite the building where his show was rehearsing. Our guide took us to see the Two and a Half Men set from the audience seats. After that, we got to walk around amongst the sets for Chuck and The Mentalist. These were cool to look at up close, since they kind of looked real but also had incongruous elements (like the lighting) that made them fake. Ah, Tinseltown. We saw a garage with some famous cars, visited a museum with displays of famous W.B. movie costumes (Bette Davis’ jewel-encrusted gown from Dark Victory was the best), then walked around the preserved Central Perk set from Friends and got our pictures taken on the couch. Very touristy, but very fun. The entire tour was so memorable and much less hurried than the normal tour. After it wrapped up, we needed to hurry and check out of the hotel, then race across town to the MGM-Sony studios for a sitcom taping that night. We made it — barely in time — for the taping of an episode of the David Spade/Patrick Warburton show The Rules of Engagement (we had been trying for Big Bang Theory tickets, but the show was sold out). This was such an interesting experience, one that I’d always wanted to try. The crowd was a bit young and white trashy, and the studio grounds seemed not as well-maintained as Warners. We got ushered in forming a single file line, with Christopher worming his way to the front so he could talk with the studio page organizing things. That turned out to be a bad idea, actually, since we ended up sitting tucked away on the very edge of the seating. The stage was arranged with all of the sets needed lined up in a row, with some even tucked away around the corner. A warm-up comedian was there to keep the audience excited, which was needed since this taping went on for almost four hours! Most scenes required two or three takes, with a small army of writers on hand to tweak lines for the maximum laughs. The show itself was okay and sporadically funny; mostly what got my interest was watching all of these people doing makeup and hair, watching playbacks on the monitors, getting sets prepped for filming. This particular episode had two scenes set in restaurants, and it was so fascinating to see the extras pantomiming their conversations, acting animated even when the cameras weren’t running on them. As the taping started getting tedious, the people running the show brought out food — first pizza, then candy. In the end, I was applauding simply for the effort all these people put into this show. Leaving the studio, we drove to nearby Venice Beach for our last hotel stay, getting somewhat lost in the process. The Hotel Erwin was hard to navigate into once found, but the room was nicely done in a trendy, funky style. I sleepily took a few photos before crashing into bed for the night.

Monday: Downtown Trudgery

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Our Los Angeles trip report continues.

  • Monday — We set aside an entire today to do an architectural walking tour of downtown. Lots of research online and through Charles Moore’s wonderful book Los Angeles: The City Observed taught me that there’s an overabundance of great buildings around here, from the public library to Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall. We wanted to see it all, and so we got an early start. Our first stop was the furthest away — the Eastern Columbia Building, tucked away several blocks to the south. I was a bit leery about walking that far on an empty stomach first thing in the morning, but it was totally worth it. This building is a total Art Deco vision in shades of periwinkle and teal. I would have loved to have seen the giant clock all lit up at night. We walked down Broadway towards breakfast, checking out the mixture of fellow walkers along the way. This area used to be a swanky destination; now it’s a mixture of the homeless, Hispanic shops and upscale condos. There’s also a lot of old theaters in various states of disrepair. We arrived at our next site, and breakfast at the famed Clifton’s Cafeteria. This eatery used to be a chain; the Broadway location is the last remaining one. I took a ton of pictures in this kitschy delight, starting with the delightful terrazzo tilework in front. The woodsy-themed dining room was a bit worn down, but totally charming. We got our trays, filled with run of the mill but tasty food, and settled down upstairs (I wonder if they have a lot of stair-related accidents there?). After finishing, we noticed a third floor, closed off to diners. Being the braver one of the two, Christopher decided to venture up there despite the floor being completely dark. We found a great little museum of Clifton’s memorabilia. An employee found us looking around. Instead of getting angry and kicking us out, he offered to turn the lights on for us! At least it gave us an opportunity to see things better. Bellies filled, we continued walking Northward towards the Little Tokyo district. There were a few independent bookstores I wanted to check out, but it was still early and they were closed. In Little Tokyo, there was a Japanese bookstore called Kunokuniya that looked intriguing. Luckily once we got there they were open for business. What a place! Shelves of manga, books on every kind of Japanese subject imaginable, and tons of beyond cute stationery, craft supplies and (my favorite) toys. We spent 80 bucks there. From here we walked towards City Hall and took more photos. This was the tallest building in L.A. when it was erected in 1928, and even today it impresses. Strangely, it never occurred to us that you could tour the building until a gentleman seeing us staring brought it up with Christopher. We got our passes and took a succession of elevators all the way to the top, where open balconies allow you to see the city vistas from all four sides. It was wonderful, and we had that whole top floor to ourselves! The building contains a lot of neat Deco-era details everywhere, making it the highlight of the day. Out of City Hall, we were getting ready to head back to the hotel when we suddenly remembered two other L.A. landmarks that still needed seeing — the Bradbury Building and Angels Flight. The Bradbury isn’t much to look at from the outside, but the interior central court is justifiably famous for its beauty. I’ve dug this building ever since seeing it in Blade Runner, and experiencing it for real was a genuine pleasure (as seen in the photo above). Angels Flight came next. Unfortunately, this famous hillside trolley is closed indefinitely — but that didn’t stop us from snapping a few pics of the bright red boxcar. By this time, it was mid-afternoon and our feet were getting tired. We went back to the hotel for a rest and change of clothes. Not for long however, since our next stop was Disney Concert Hall. This place was gorgeous, especially with a second floor garden winding around the back. I loved how the interior was such a complete design, right down to the custom font used on the lobby’s donor wall. We took the hour long audio tour, which was apparently popular since there were lots of other tourists wandering around the place carrying those unique audio wands that day. I took several shots of Gehry’s famous undulating walls on that perfectly sunny afternoon. Our final stop that day was the Los Angeles Public Library, thankfully located close to the Westin. This is another gorgeous Art Deco structure, although by this time we were too tired to fully appreciate it. The library happened to be hosting a show of drawings and sketches by the architect Richard Neutra, so we spent a good 45 minutes or so looking at that. Anyone in the area should check that out. Feet and backs aching, we trudged back to our hotel — tired but happy that we had such an eventful day.

Weekly Mishmash: September 27-October 10

Caveat: all of these entries are from more than a week ago, so my memory of them might be hazy. Hence, shorter tidbits.
poster_interstella5555Interstella 5555 (2003) and Streets of Fire (1984). These films fall under the “style over substance” category, but I had fun with them both. Interstella 5555 was the collaboration between French dance music duo Daft Punk and famed anime director Leiji Matsumoto. Hobbled by a silly plot about abducted blue-skinned alien rock band, this was a gorgeous looking film. The entire film is skillfully synched up with Daft Punk’s terrific 2001 album Discovery, start to finish, free of sound effects and dialogue. The animation has a wonderful ’80s feel with lots of pastel colors, glowing lights, and constant movement (I wasn’t aware at the time, but Matsumoto gave the film a deliberately retro look – gotta bone up on my anime knowledge, I guess). I was expecting cheese with Walter Hill’s MTV-influenced Streets of Fire, but it was actually pretty fun all around despite a storyline that goes way beyond pedestrian. Michael Paré, Diane Lane, Willen Dafoe, Amy Madigan and Rick Moranis all deliver good performances, the ’50s-meets-’80s production design is cool, and the soundtrack is a blast.
The Lost World (1925). I got this DVD for patiently logging in the numbers on Stouffers dinner packages — several years’ worth! I’ll never do that again, but I’m glad I own this silent classic. Sure, the acting is dated, with Wallace Beery doing his usual bluster and Bessie Love called upon to do little more than act startled. Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion special effects, however, continue to impress even today. I love the ending, with a Brontosaurus wreaking havoc on London’s streets. The DVD copy I got also contains some cool extras with more of O’Brien’s stop-motion trickery.
Obsession (1976). I always wanted to see this early Brian De Palma film and was pleasantly surprised when it showed up on the TCM schedule. Shouldn’t have bothered — it’s derivative, creepy and dull. Cliff Robertson is a dour, unappealing lead and Genevieve Bujold is out of her depth in a dual role. I was also squicked out by the film’s (spoiler alert!) incest angle. Probably the most regrettable aspect of this film is Bernard Hermann’s unsubtle score. Rent Vertigo instead.
Popeye the Sailor: 1933-38, Volume 1. This DVD set has been out for a few years, but I never paid it much attention until hearing that retail chain Big Lots were selling these at the princely sum of $3.99 each. I’m glad I picked one up. These are the earlier, cooler Popeye cartoons that zing with the creative stamp of Dave and Max Fleischer. Jazzy, energetic, surreal, full of character — these b&w beauties are the real deal, cartoon-wise. The DVD package itself is a marvel, packed with documentaries and examples of early silent animation from the Fleischers and others. Immediately I headed back to Big Lots (twice) to get another one for my nephew, but alas they were out.
When Ladies Meet (1941). Dated, improbable Joan Crawford comedy of manners, a remake of a 1933 film (itself adapted from a Rachel Crothers stage hit). Although this film boasts beautiful black and white cinematography and Joan looks great in swanky Adrian-designed duds, this film falls short of the ’33 version in every department. Most glaringly in the casting — all four leads are inferior. Crawford completist that I am, I’m still happy to have marked this one off.