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Monthly Archives: January 2010

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Weekly Mishmash: January 24-30

Big Trouble in Little China (1986). Following They Live in my exploration of ’80s John Carpenter movies, Big Trouble in Little China seems to have a big following amongst action kitsch lovers. Like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, though, I sense that a big chunk of the people who adore this film were impressionable young boys when they first viewed it. This jaded fortysomething didn’t get as much of a kick out it, but the movie is still fast-paced and fun with an over-the-top sensibility that the director and star Kurt Russel run with for all it’s worth. Although the story is nothing to write home about, I enjoyed the appealing cast, the fighting scenes, and the Asian weirdness of it all. When it comes down to it, however, real Asian action flicks are exponentially weirder (see below).
It’s Tough to Be Famous (1932). Intriguing early talkie supposedly inspired by the rise of Charles Lindbergh. Lanky and elegant Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. stars as Navy officer Scotty McClenahan. When his submarine is bombed, McClenahan gallantly chooses to save his crew over himself. Returning to land, he gets a hero’s welcome and becomes a national celebrity. This film covers ground similar to Crooner with David Manners; unlike that tale, however, this one treats fame with a healthy dose of cynicism. Fairbanks doesn’t want to be famous at all and resents that the adulation has changed his relationship with girlfriend (Mary Brian) and prevents the now-retired officer from getting a decent job. Although the film is a bit poky and unfocused, it’s interesting to watch in today’s celebrity craving climate.
poster_latitudezeroLatitude Zero (1969). Wild and campy sci-fi action monster flick from Toho studios and Godzilla director Ishirô Honda. Actually, this plays a bit like a Godzilla flick, only with Joseph Cotten and a hammy Cesar Romero standing in for the big green scaly guy. In this film, a submarine containing three scientists loses its way and crash lands deep undersea. The vessel’s crew is rescued by an advanced sub piloted by well preserved 204 year-old scientist Cotten, a man who introduces them to his utopian underwater community (shades of Lost Horizon‘s Shangri-La) — a society whose peaceful existence is under threat from a maniacal geneticist (Romero) who lives on a nearby rocky island populated with giant rats. Yeah, I didn’t make that up. Don’t expect anything great here (not even cheesy great), but there are plenty of detailed miniature special effects, Austin Powers-esque silver and gold outfits, futuristic Op Art decor, and an international cast of youngsters and vets seemingly trying to out-ham each other. We watched the U.S. dubbed version, which conjured up memories of being a kid and watching monster movies every Saturday on our local outlet for cheesy old sci-fi, World Beyond broadcast on Phoenix’s KPHO (locals: remember that?). ’60s camp aficionados: don’t miss this!

Paris, je t’aime (2006). Twenty short films by a host of acclaimed directors, all relating to love and life in and around Paris. Some segments suffer from being too short (Gus Van Sant’s part, the only story involving gay men), too pointless (Alfonso Cuarón’s single take of Nick Nolte yammering away to a French dolly), or too weird (a courtship told in stylized mime). The good parts greatly outweigh the bad overall, however. The beauty of a film like this is that each viewer can come away with their own favorites to savor. My own were Alexander Payne’s segment, narrated by a plain looking middle aged American tourist, and the segment with two transplanted Nigerians whose paths cross in remarkable ways.
Surrogates (2009). Bruce Willis copes with a near future in which American society is populated with “surrogates,” lifelike robot avatars controlled by humans who have become too sedentary to experience fresh air and nice walks for themselves. This had a lot of potential to be an involving thriller with a deep message a la Spielberg’s Minority Report, but the end result is a disappointing mishmash with plot holes galore. It’s not horribly done, and entertaining in its own modest way. Whatever you do, don’t watch the previews, which give away too many essential plot points.
album_chrisisaakSwing Out Sister — Shapes and Patterns and Chris Isaak — Best of Chris Isaak. Swing Out Sister and Chris Isaak are two performers with deeply retro sensibilities and strangely durable careers; these releases also serve as interesting reminders of how record companies handle performers that don’t fit in one readily identified musical niche. 1997’s Shapes and Patterns was Mercury’s last-ditch attempt to market the sophisticated pop of Corrine Drewery and Andy Connell to the U.S. (the duo remains popular in Japan). By this time the duo had expanded their striking brand of Bacharach-esque pop to include bits of ’70s funk and even chilly electro (“Icy Cold As Winter”). It didn’t translate to big sales, but this album is still a pleasure to hear. Although the album doesn’t hit the peaks of ’89’s Kaleidoscope World (sheer perfection, in my opinion), this is a good vehicle for Drewery’s expressive but never show-offy voice and Connell’s candy sweet arrangements. Who’da thunk that these two would still be around today? I’ve also harbored a liking for Chris Isaak (and not just for his hot looks), but I’ve never actually gotten any of his stuff until recently coming across his best-of on eMusic. His schtick is a singer-songwriter’s take on ’50s/early ’60s Roy Orbison style crooning, but with a dose of modern grit that elevates it above mere retro pastiche. Listening to this collection, what strikes me most is how consistent his sound has been. The tracks range from “Dancin'” off his 1985 debut to a handful of 2006 tunes, all versed in laid back California cool with simple arrangements and echo-laden vocals. That sound is best epitomized on the sexy “Wicked Game” (his only top 10 hit), but just about everything he’s done is worth looking into.

Binder, Maurice Binder

I’ve been checking out a lot of favorite 1960s movie title sequences lately. Today’s neat discovery: a YouTube user has strung together all of the James Bond franchise title sequences so you can see how they developed over time. The first group below includes titles from Dr. No, From Russia with Love and Goldfinger — all designed by Maurice Binder (not true, actually; see comments). Binder designed the credits on all 007 franchise films released up to his death in 1991. Even the more recent Bond titles owe a huge debt to his seductive imagery.

The Plastic Conundrum

Could you live for a day without plastic? How about a week? Last August, Readymade magazine’s online editor Katherine Sharpe tried forgoing plastic for seven days. Here’s the conclusion of her report. It really makes you think about how much plastics invade our lives, and how one can take simple steps to eliminate the stuff in certain areas (even if you can’t totally avoid it). For example, it always makes me cringe when we put bananas in a plastic bag at the supermarket. Why bag bananas?

In the comments of that blog entry, there’s a link to the site of Chris Jordan, an artist-photographer who visualizes what we humans consume in thought provoking ways. Worth a look!

Weekly Mishmash II: January 17-23

The Monkees — The Monkees [Deluxe Edition]. Though I’ve only been subscribing to mp3 download site eMusic for a few months, they’ve already hit upon a treasure trove of new albums from the Warner Music Group just added this month. This move doesn’t sit well with the indie-lovin’ eMusic faithful, but it’s a-okay with me. The first thing I decided to sample was the Monkees’ first album from 1966, as reissued with bonus tracks by Rhino in 2006. Despite having only one hit (“Last Train to Clarksville”), this was a groovy little album. The affable voice of Micky Dolenz can be heard on most of the tracks, with a few vocals going to Davy Jones and Mike Nesmith (Peter Tork is nowhere to be heard). Naysayers find the Monkees to be a fake Beatles, but mostly what I get off this LP is a smoothed out version of the L.A. garage rock popular at that time. Although most of these tracks are written by Tommy Boyce-Bobby Hart or Gerry Goffin-Carole King, Nesmith’s winsome “Papa Gene’s Blues” proves the band had at least one talented songwriter within its ranks. Nifty vintage commercials and early demoes of tunes that wound up on later Monkees albums make up the bonus tracks.
kayfrancismybillMy Bill (1938). TCM last week celebrated the birthday of actress Kay Francis with a morning-long slate of her soapy vehicles, of which this particular one got caught via the TiFaux. This was apparently the first film the fabulous Francis made after she made a stink with Warner Bros. over the terms of her contract. As a result, the Warners brass started casting her in lower budget b-movies (they even gave her scripts that highlighted her Elmer Fuddlike speech impediment — ouch!). My Bill is a heartwarming family melodrama with the glamorous Kay miscast as cash strapped widow and mother of four children in a small, judgemental town. It’s a very simplistic and predictable film, but I actually enjoyed the way Francis interacted with the actors playing her children — particularly Dickie Moore as the only child who sticks with his ma after his bratty siblings decide to stay with their rich aunt. Moore is cute without being cloying, providing the emotional anchor to this admittedly slight tale. Read more about this film (and the rest of Miss Francis’ oeuvre) at the Kay Francis’ Life and Career weblog.
Pandorum (2009). A “been there, done that” sci fi horror film set on a spacecraft with crew members emerging from hypersleep to find themselves lost in space and outnumbered by grungy, mysterious creatures. Ben Foster and Dennis Quaid do decent enough jobs heading up a quirky cast, but there’s nothing novel to be found in a familiar story populated with characters from the action/horror playbook. Tough chick? Check. Ethnic dude who meets an early end? Check. Batshit crazy guy? Check. Drinking game: take a swig each time Foster takes a tumble.
They Live (1988). “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum.” Pulpy fun from director John Carpenter and bemulleted, surprisingly hunky leading man Roddy Piper. This is a rather obvious anti-conformity screed, but it’s pretty enjoyable once you turn your brain off. Piper’s five minute long fistfight with actor Keith David was an interesting sight, but what stood out for me was the homo-subtext between the two actors (that couldn’t have been done on purpose, could it?). I like the idea that aliens live among us, beings which can only be seen through special sunglasses, but Piper must have been a fool to think glassy-eyed Meg Foster was a human. Abrupt ending was a disappointment.

Weekly Mishmash I: January 17-23

Chinese Box (1997). IFC showing. A very serious drama documenting a British photojournalist (Jeremy Irons) living in Hong Kong when the city underwent their historic transfer of power to the Chinese in 1997. The tumult of these events is mirrored in Irons’ personal life, in which he deals with his girlfriend (Gong Li), a barkeeper who is also involved with a wealthy Chinese businessman, and a feisty street vendor (Maggie Cheung) who captures his attention. We recorded this for the cast, since Irons is always good, Li never fails to look gorgeous, and the versatile Cheung is watchable in just about anything. Despite them, though, this film is a big bore overloaded with too many obvious metaphors. The characters never really connected with me — Irons is too remote, Li (in her first English speaking role) looks uncomfortable, and Cheung can’t do much with her obnoxious, underwritten character.
Crooner (1932). Fun early Warner Bros. talkie starring handsome David Manners as a big band leader who finds swift stardom after emulating a Rudy Vallee style of soft singing. He gets a swelled head, however, finding that fame is more fleeting than the latest hemline length. Manners is too bland a personality to carry a film, and the songs are beyond unmemorable, but the film moves along nicely thanks to Lloyd Bacon’s crisp direction, and the marvelous Ann Dvorak is on hand as Manners’ girlfriend. I like that the ultimate indignity of Manners’ conceited singer comes when he hits a “cripple” (a WWI vet with one missing leg). How shameful!
The Girl Next Door (1953). Another musical hobbled by forgettable songs, but almost redeemed through its charming cast. This Technicolor Fox opus stars effervescent June Haver as a stage star who retires to a (fabulously decorated) suburban home. All is cozy until Haver finds herself drawn to the slovenly cartoonist (Dan Dailey) living next door, a widower raising a young son (Billy Gray). For some reason, I find myself drawn to June Haver and her generic perkiness, and she’s a good match in the dancing department with the athletic Dailey. I enjoyed the unusual domestic setting here, too, and there are several interestingly staged numbers (such as the one below, with Dailey and Gray doing some intricate moves with a bunch of Lifetime plastic dinnerware). This film even contains two fantasy sequences animated by the UPA studio. These scenes are cool to watch and very ’50s modern looking, but like the rest of the film they don’t quite jell. Overall the film is a diverting curio for ’50s musical fans, über perky and unmemorable.

The rest of the Mishmash continues tomorrow — betcha just can’t wait!

Miracles from Molecules

Posting our Wednesday video on Thursday (the mind is the first thing to go, doncha know), we have a short film from on one of Disneyland’s best-ever attractions — Monsanto’s Adventure Thru Inner Space. This was the ride where, riding in a capsule-shaped buggy, one got shrunk down to explore the molecular structure of a common snowflake. The thrills began in the ride’s queue, with a giant microscope and that super-cool rainbow hued snowflake on the wall (seen at 2:07 in the video). Sadly, the guest shrinkage ceased in 1986 and things were never quite the same in Tomorrowland. Star Tours swallowed up the same space in the park, not a good substitute in my opinion. Pee Wee Herman replacing Paul Frees? Phhhtt.