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Monthly Archives: December 2009

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Weekly Mishmash: December 13-19


Avatar (2009). We began our Avatar experience by walking through a long and twisty corridor, accepting pairs of funny looking glasses, finding a seat near the back of a cavernous theater, full of anticipation. I wasn’t expecting to be blown away, but I was. Though the film is not without its flaws (predictable story, dumb-dumb action climax), Avatar pretty much lives up to the hype. The rainforest-on-steroids world of Pandora is so fully realized and enveloping that I often lost sight of the fact that it was computer generated. By comparison the human world was a bit more pedestrian, but it’s a fun confection populated with an attractive cast (with Sigourney Weaver’s feisty and very Ripley-esque researcher being the highlight). James Cameron may come off like a massive blowhard in interviews, but when it comes to entertainment on a mass scale he really delivers the goods. Strangely enough, the only thing that truly distracted me was how they used the Papyrus font for the alien language subtitles. Papyrus, really? A font that comes equipped on every single Mac computer on earth? You’d think they’d use some of that $240 million budget to spring for a custom typeface.
D.O.A. (1950). I barely remember watching this noir chestnut eons ago on American Movie Classics, but I wanted to catch it again after learning parts of this movie were filmed in L.A.’s historic Bradbury Building. It’s here, all right — one of the stops that harried Edmond O’Brien makes when trying to track down the evildoer who slipped him a slow-acting, fatal dose of poison. This was a fun film, very cheesy at times (especially the scene where wolf whistles are incongruously placed on the soundtrack) but effectively tense and briskly made. I found O’Brien’s character appealing, even if he was a bit of a henpecked wuss with a shrew of a girlfriend. The Bradbury office and several other scenes make wonderful use of location shooting. I especially dug the part where O’Brien was running down a busy San Francisco street, frantically bumping into passers-by with bracing realism (apparently it was filmed with actual, unaware pedestrians and not actors). Scenes like that are a fascinating little window into the real world of 1950 that one rarely sees in classic Hollywood films.
Public Enemies (2009). Disappointing. Bryan Burrough’s book of the same name was an encyclopedic chronicle of America’s early ’30s crime wave and how the government reacted with J. Edgar Hoover and his squad of G-Men. It might have made for a terrific miniseries had it been filmed exactly as written, but Michael Mann boils it down here to an uninspiring cat-and-mouse tale with Johnny Depp as John Dillinger and Christian Bale as Hoover’s top G-Man, Melvin Purvis. Mostly the film just seemed too poky and unnecessarily artsy. Burrough portrays Dillinger as a happy-go-lucky sort who reveled in his own celebrity, but Depp’s interpretation is so dark and morose it puts a pall on the whole thing. Despite all that, the film does have a few interesting parts. I enjoyed the scene set during Dillinger’s final night in a Chicago theater, Manhattan Melodrama projected onscreen while the camera focuses on Depp’s face mulling over how the movie he’s watching mirrors his own past. If only the rest of the film was that concise and eloquent.

Disco Nite

Today’s video is a performance of the disco-era “Spacer” by Sheila & B. Devotion, resplendent in silver jumpsuits and matching choreography. Sheila was a French singer who got her start in the ’60s ye-ye girl pop scene — and although she’s no great shakes as a vocalist, with this tune she gets a heavenly production from Bernard Edwards and Nile Rogers of Chic.

Flash forward a couple of decades, and we find Swedish trio Alcazar heavily sampling “Spacer” for their wonderful 2000 dance club hit “Crying at the Discotheque.” I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite between these two. True, Sheila doesn’t have lyrics as priceless as “You wore a tie like Richard Gere’s.” The “Cryin'” video is so bizarre, I just have to share it here:

Together Forever

Stumbled across on YouTube: part 1 of a Stock Aitken Waterman video megamix. Very well done, even if it points out the similarities between everything S.A.W. did (not that I’m complaining; I love that cheesy, happy ’80s sound). Even the accompanying videos have a similar look — lots of well-scrubbed faces, “fun” jewelry and hair product galore.

On a similar note, I was browsing through Abercrombie & Fitch in Las Vegas last week and was surprised to find Rick Astley’s “Together Forever” loudly pumping throughout the store. I never suspected that kids today were that much into the Rickster, but there you go.

Weekly Mishmash: December 6-12

Black Book (2006). Super slick and engrossing German Dutch WWII drama directed by Paul Verhoeven. It concerns a woman (Carice Van Houten, great), living in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, who decides to join the Dutch resistance. Eventually she infiltrates a Nazi office posing as a secretary and kept woman for a high ranking official (Sebastian Koch, who was also in The Lives Of Others). This was a speedily paced and well-mounted flick, occasionally sexy and violent in ways that European films rarely are (obviously the years working in Hollywood were a big plus for Verhoeven with this one). Mostly it reminded me of an updated version of classic wartime melodramas from that period. In that sense, this accomplishes what Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German tried and failed to do. If you like stirring wartime entertainment, definitely seek this one out.
One Fatal Hour (1936). This melodrama came on during TCM‘s month-long Humphrey Bogart salute; I recorded it simply because it’s one of the few Bogie films that I’d never heard of before. As I was watching, it looked vaguely familiar. As it turned out, One Fatal Hour is a remake of 1931’s Five Star Final with a setting switch from newsroom to radio station. Despite Bogart’s solid presence in the role previously played by Edward G. Robinson, however, this one falls way short of the original. The film manages to turn an interesting plot (about a matronly ex-con desparately trying to prevent an exploitative broadcaster from revealing her past) into an overbearing and preachy bore.
album_dollyDolly Parton — Dolly. Four disc, encyclopedic compilation proves once and for all that Miss Parton talents encompass more than just a big smile and a bigger chest. This set isn’t quite career-spanning, but it does start with her earliest single (1959’s “Puppy Love” on the tiny Gold Band label) and goes comprehensively through the years all the way up to her 1993 hit “Romeo.” At first I thought this might be too much Dolly for me, but I found myself really enjoying every facet of this set. Unlike many smaller hits collections that focus on the #1s (many of which she didn’t write), this box really does a good job of showing her development as one of the best songwriters in Country music — not to mention her savvy way of embracing passing trends while retaining her own distinctly rural point of view. One example is the fantastic Shangri-Las inspired teen drama of 1966’s “Don’t Drop Out,” which is joined here by “I’ve Known You All My Life” a previously unreleased Goffin-King gem that proves she had pop instincts several years before “9 to 5” topped the charts. The set also contains many of the duets with Porter Wagoner which cemented her early fame. These songs are quaint and old fashioned compared to her own simultaneous output like “Just Because I’m a Woman,” but they do provide a framework for what would come later and they’re entertaining in their own cheesy way. Dolly standards like “Jolene” sound even better surrounded by worthy album cuts, and even the material coming out of her pop crossover period beginning with 1977’s perky “Here You Come Again” sounds fresh. I even enjoyed totally ’80s synthesized productions like “Think About Love” (I do wish there was at least one cut from her notorious 1987 pop-oriented flop Rainbow, however). Nowadays the lady is starting to look more and more like a drag queen version of herself, but with this set my admiration for the woman has hit a new high.

Make the Yuletide Gay

Ivan requested it, so I will pass it along like a perpetually re-gifted Christmas fruitcake — my ten favorite holiday songs.

10. “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” For a song that started as a promotional gimmick for Montgomery Ward department stores, this novelty has had a long shelf life. Gene Autry’s rendition from the ’40s is among the best. Most covers of this tend towards the cloying, but the Temptations’ 1969 version is a badass classic.

9. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” Many of the best holiday songs have a tinge of sadness, and this one from the fantastic Phil Spector Presents a Christmas Gift for You album is no exception. Darlene Love sings with such fierce passion, one has to wonder if she isn’t being downright suicidal over the thought of her sweetie not showing up for Christmas.

8. “One Foot In Front Of The Other” A perky ode to self esteem sung by Mickey Rooney and Keenan Wynn in the Rankin-Bass animated special Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town. This tune isn’t particularly Christmassy in lyrics or sentiment, but it never fails to make me smile whenever the song (rarely) pops up on a store’s holiday-themed music loop.

7. “What Christmas Means To Me” Teenaged Stevie Wonder guilelessly lists his favorite seasonal things over a killer Motown beat. This gets me in a Christmas mood as soon as the tambourines come in.

6. “Jingle Bells” An overplayed perennial, for sure — but it warms my heart to hear this every year, and it’s so damned easy to sing along with it. Check out the nifty ’40s animated Screen Song version, sporting a rarely performed extra verse:

5. “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” Another sad classic. A thousand syrupy renditions can’t hide the fact that this came from the WWII era and has the same aura of hopeful resignation as “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “We’ll Meet Again.” Beautiful song.

4. “Fairytale Of New York” The last 25 years haven’t produced a lot of yuletide standards, but this collaboration between the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl deserves to be right up there with “Silent Night” and “White Christmas.” Great as those songs are, they lack the directness of lyrics like “You’re a bum you’re a punk/You’re an old slut on junk.” Some of us require a bit of acid in our egg nog, you know.

3. “All I Want For Christmas Is You” See above. Though I normally don’t favor Ms. Carey and her overwrought singing style, this song is such a stirring, fantastic production and I never tire of hearing it. What I hear in these 3:55 is everyone giving their all, a nostalgic Phil Spector pastiche that strangely sounds more timeless as the years go by.

2. “Christmas Time Is Here” The highlight of the Vince Guaraldi’s lovely Charlie Brown Christmas score. Having it performed by a doleful sounding choir of children was a strike of genius.

1. “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” The holiday season is about home, togetherness, family — qualities that are perfectly embodied in “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” Complete with original “muddle through somehow” lyrics, Judy Garland’s performance of this in Meet Me In St. Louis is and will always be the definitive version.

Viva Lost Wages

The Gambler Who Blew $127 Million, a Wall Street Journal article via News From Me. I just got back from a three day stay in Las Vegas (details to come later). This article makes me feel better for the piddly sum that I lost.