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Monthly Archives: January 2010

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Wheels on Fire, Burning Down the Road

Welcome to our latest acquisition (Price Is Right voice) — a new car! This 2005 Pontiac Grand Prix was among the fleet of company cars for the place where Christopher works. When they came up for sale, we thought long and hard and decided to go for it. I loved my trusty old ’97 Geo Metro (a hand-me-down from Christopher), but it was getting to the point where it was rattling, the AC didn’t work right, etc. So it was with a heavy heart that we donated the old vehicle to a local charity for the blind. This Pontiac is nice and sturdy, bigger than what I’m usually used to but very nimble and smooth on the road. Design-wise, I had this impression that Pontiacs were the cars made for dudes who think a framed Nagel print was the height of cool. This particular model is not too bad looking, however. Stylish, even.

pontiac05

Weekly Mishmash: January 10-16

album_leifgarrettLeif Garrett – The Leif Garrett Collection. I thought it might be kitschy and fun to make this 12-track collection my last download for the month at eMusic. Listening to it from start to finish, it’s pretty apparent that Leif was only put on this earth to look dreamy on album covers and posters (preferably in skintight jeans) — but some of it bears further exploration. His biggest hit “I Was Made for Dancin'” still sounds goofy yet incredibly potent, an artifact of the time when disco and rock could mix without a blink. There are a few goodies in his later, lesser-known stuff — “Memorize Your Number,” a Knackish power pop gem from 1979, the breezy California soft rock number “You Had to Go and Change On Me,” and the ’50s flavored “Runaway Rita” (his last charting single from late ’81). The rest is bubblegum dreck, but the little girls understand.
The Hospital (1971). Bleak, savagely funny satirical drama set in a beleaguered hospital run by a suicidal administrator (George C. Scott). This was directed by Arthur Hiller and written by Paddy Chayefsky in a startlingly contemporary manner that would foreshadow Chayefsky’s own Network from a few years later. The dialogue is whip-smart and expertly played by a great cast that includes Scott, Diana Rigg, and a host of actors that would later become better known in a variety of later TV shows. Although many elements are strained and dated (the protesters, for example), I was surprised at how timely and enjoyable this was. And, yes, I can totally imagine today’s hospitals being run this incompetently.
book_leopoldloebFor the Thrill Of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Jazz Age Chicago by Simon Baatz. Frustrating, absorbing at times account of the “trial of the century” for Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold Jr., affluent 1920s college students who brutally murdered an 11 year-old boy as an exercise for their own demented enjoyment. Baatz’s approach is incredibly detailed and comprehensive, which works well on the sections dealing with the crime itself, and what happened later on with the two men after they were sentenced to lifelong jail terms. He does tend to get too detailed, however, and it seriously hobbles the book when Baatz decides we need to know the complete backstories of the two attorneys (I skipped those chapters). The account of Leopold and Loeb’s trial, with page after page of medical experts debating the boys’ sanity, was mind-bendingly dull. The good parts of this book were very well done, however, adding much needed perspective to a crime that was fictionalized in movies such as Alfred Hitchock’s Rope and Tom Kalin’s Swoon.
The Lucy Show: The Official First Season. An interesting watch, since all I’d known of Lucille Ball’s first venture after I Love Lucy were the later color seasons in which her daffy Lucy Carmichael character works at a bank under Gale Gordon as the imperious Mr. Mooney. This first season was a different animal altogether, and not just for the crisp black and white photography. Lucy plays a widow raising two children under the same roof with her best friend Vivian Bagley (Vivian Vance, of course), a divorcée with her own boy. Ball throws herself into the role with aplomb, and she has excellent chemistry with Vance (who seems to relish playing a sexier, less matronly character than Ethel Mertz). The domestic setting provides a lot of good situations; I just wish it worked a bit better. The kids are shrill and don’t really add anything to the show, and many of the plots are so Lucy-centric that it makes one realize that she worked best in an ensemble. Finally, the writing is just so stupid and silly with one preposterous situation after another. Despite its faults, it was fun watching this DVD set with a host of nifty extras (such as the credits sequence with commercial insert below). Bring on season two and Mr. Mooney!

Man Hunt (1941). Interesting, somewhat ridiculous WWII propaganda film directed by Fritz Lang. Given the cast and director, I was expecting more than the hokey dramatics presented in this yarn with Walter Pidgeon portraying an Englishman who nearly assassinates Hitler. The film begins as a relatively low-key affair when Pidgeon is chased across Europe by Nazi official George Sanders and his verminlike minion (John Carradine). Then things turn bizarre with the appearance of Joan Bennett as a poor Londonite sporting the worst cockney accent ever committed to film (trust me, it’s dinner theater My Fair Lady production awful). The gullible Bennett falls for Pidgeon, a point that is hammered home by Alfred Newman’s overly obvious musical score. I won’t spoil the rest, but things unspool in a way that makes this more an interesting, hokey beyond belief curio than the lost classic that many fans insist it is.
Moon (2009) and Clonus (1979). Two low budget sci-fi indies which took on cloning as its subject, coincidentally seen in the same week here at chez scrubbles. It goes without saying that Moon is the better of the two, although Clonus has its own interest once you get past the kitschy ’70s trappings. The former concerns an astronaut (Sam Rockwell) who is the sole operator of a mining colony on the dark side of the moon. Readying to complete his three year mission, he is shocked to find a visitor who looks like his exact double. This film does wonders with a small budget, impressively creating a world with one set and several expertly done miniatures. I also liked how they filmed Rockwell playing against himself, which makes up for the implausible story (one guy running an entire moon colony?) and an imposing robot ripped off of 2001. Not an earth shattering film, but thought provoking nonetheless. I’d previously seen Clonus as a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode, but watching it without the riffing reveals it to be an interesting story brought down by a miniscule budget. I will say this — it kept our attention. The DVD’s added interview with director Robert Fiveson had one anecdote which revealed something I hadn’t noticed in the movie.: he had instructed the actors playing the lobotomized clones to blink a beat longer than usual. It’s a subtle touch that adds a lot to their ’70s blow-dried creepiness.
The Silent Partner (1978). Overlooked crime thriller starring Elliot Gould as a mild-mannered teller who gets into trouble when he secretly absconds with part of a fortune missed by a psychotic bank robber (Christopher Plummer). This was kind of a cool story, well-played with a few scenes of shocking violence which called to mind Dressed to Kill. I enjoyed Susannah York as Gould’s sensible co-worker and love interest, which made up for the weirdly dubbed Céline Lomez as the other woman in his life. This was made in Canada, which has its own strange appeal, but the best part was that much of the film was shot in a brand new shopping mall. These scenes were a gas, and they totally reminded me of the local mall I once knew and loved that also opened around 1978 (yes, I’m a weirdo who loves it when a Swensen’s ice cream parlor pops up in the background of a movie). Add in unknown John Candy doing a non-comedic role and you have something that is worth a peek for the curious.

Return to Joy

A vintage To Tell the Truth segment with silent film actress Leatrice Joy. Although we’re probably the only people on the planet with a framed picture of Miss Joy hanging in our kitchen, this was a tough one to guess. The one I suspected most from the opening remarks ended up being the real Leatrice, however.

Jeez, I miss the old b&w game shows on GSN.

Silent Saturday

haroldlloyd

You oughta know this by now, but we can’t get enough old movies — on DVD, on Turner Classic Movies, anywhere we can find them. With all the old movies we get to see, however, it’s a shame that we rarely get the chance to see them as they were originally shown. This past weekend, Christopher, some friends and I got the privilege to experience a silent film the way it would have been shown back in the ’20s, on a big screen with live musical accompaniment. The film was Safety Last! starring Harold Lloyd, presented as part of a series of silent film screenings shown at the beautifully restored Orpheum Theatre in downtown Phoenix.

The film itself was so much fun, and there is a lot more to it than Lloyd’s famous “hanging off a clock” scene. Lloyd plays one of his usual cheerful small town boys here, one that must find a job in the big city so that he can afford to marry his best girl (Mildred Davis, who later became the real Mrs. Harold Lloyd). Although he finds employment as a department store clerk, Lloyd finds that he has to exaggerate his position so his girl won’t leave him. Eventually he devises a promotional scheme to have a “human fly” climb outside the huge department store, a plan that goes awry when Lloyd has to sub for his stuntman pal. This fast-paced romp was a great vehicle for Lloyd’s gift for perfect physical comedy, and the film is brimming with several clever bits that utilize it (Lloyd and his roommate turning themselves into hanging coats to avoid their landlady, for instance). The scenes of Lloyd climbing up that building are beautifully done, and what’s more you get a lot of breathtaking aerial views of downtown Los Angeles streets with their trolley cars and lack of crosswalks or stoplights. The showing had live accompaniment on the huge pipe organ that was part of the Orpheum restoration. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill organ — it’s huge! The score was magnificently played by local legend Ron Rhode, whom I remember playing a similarly gigantic instrument at Organ Stop Pizza not far from where I grew up. His presence made the evening doubly nostalgic for this whippersnapper.

Although the showing we attended was fun, it was also sparsely attended with only about 20% of the theatre’s seats filled. What’s more, the audience was, well, old. I only saw a few dozen people who looked under 40, and precious few children (which is a shame, since I think young kids would get a big kick out of this particular movie). The presentation was hosted by a local community college professor who lacked the gravity of a Robert Osborne. I was also disappointed with the lack of accompanying vintage shorts which were at the last showing we attended. Despite all that, it was a fun evening. The Orpheum really needs to get better p.r. people so the younger generation (and trust me, they’re out there) can enjoy vintage movies the way they ought to be seen.

Weekly Mishmash: January 3-9

If I Had A Million (1932). When this Depression-era anthology showed up on the TCM schedule, I was so delighted. For one, it’s one of Joyce Compton‘s earlier films that I’d never seen. For another, I’ve always heard that this was one of the better films of its kind (different directors contributing short bits on a central theme) ever made. I wasn’t disappointed. The film opens with an eccentric dying multi-millionaire (Richard Bennett), fed up with his greedy family, deciding to leave his fortune to a bunch of randomly picked New Yorkers. Several vignettes then explore how a sudden flush of money affects everyone from a henpecked store clerk to a criminal on the lam. While it’s true that some segments were more successfully pulled off than others, overall I felt the film captures the tone of that time better than almost anything else. The segment with W.C. Fields and Alison Skipworth as a pair of crusty vaudevillians who take revenge on “road hogs” gets the most attention; mostly I enjoyed that part for the priceless street views of 1932 L.A. The segment with Wynne Gibson as a prostitute with a simple desire to sleep in a plush bed by herself was a marvel of economy. The very best part, however, was the closing segment with May Robson delivering a wonderful performance as a feisty resident in a stifling home for elderly women. It’s a revenge tale like the Fields/Skipworth segment, only twice as sweet.
Jennifer’s Body (2009). Pretty awful teen horror comedy with Megan Fox as a stuck-up girl who gets transformed into a flesh-hungry demon by a touring emo band, much to the dismay of her nerdy best friend (not-bad Amanda Seyfried). This is notable for being Diablo Cody’s first produced screenplay after Juno rocketed her into the a-list. I’ve never seen that film, but based on this one Cody’s slangy, painfully straining-for-hipness screenwriting style is not for me. At one point Megan Fox even says “MoveOn.org, girl!” — something that might look cute in a twitter post, but plays like an incredibly lame joke onscreen. It doesn’t help that her story makes little sense, and Fox further proves that she’s a smokin’ hot chick with little else in the talent department.
The Namesake (2006). Mira Nair’s ambitious feature on cultural clashes within an Indian-American family is earnest and well acted, but ultimately the film winds up an overlong example of biting off more than one can chew. The early scenes, depicting the arranged marriage and awkward early years of a young couple (Irrfan Khan and Tabu, both fine), are nicely done and poignant. I also enjoyed the appealing Kal Penn as the couple’s Americanized son, whose differing views on life from his own father’s form the backbone of the film. As soon as the story detours into soap opera-ish territory in the film’s second half, however, things get dicey. There were a few points at which the movie could have satisfyingly concluded, but then another wrinkle develops and the story continues — and this happens several times! Somewhat worthy if you’re into Indian cuture; otherwise beware.
The Stranger (1946). TCM included this suspenser on a morning-long salute to actress Loretta Young this week. Although Young frets nicely as a small town newlywed who slowly discovers her new hubby is a Nazi, this film really belongs to Orson Welles (in the title role) and Edward G. Robinson (as a government inspector tracking Welles down). Wells also directs, and this film does have a stylistic similarity to Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, albeit in a watered-down fashion. The flourishes are enough to make it stand out over the somewhat routine script, and the three main actors are a joy to watch. Fun viewing that reminds me of how great black and white movies can be (even the silly ones) — and you can’t beat that clock tower climax.
album_tipsybuzzzTipsy — Buzzz. eMusic download. Tipsy is known for seductive instrumental mashups that incorporate tasty samples from weird old easy listening records (or at least that’s what it sounds like to these ears). 2008’s Buzzz was his first album in a few years, a subtle departure from the more overtly kitschy sound he’s known for. Some fans don’t favor this “chillout” approach as much, but as far as swanky background music goes this album is tops. It sets a relaxed mood overall, but there is enough variety in individual tracks to keep things interesting. Some tracks even live up to the very descriptive titles they’ve been given — “Kitty’s Daydream” is a highlight. The only thing missing here is a cocktail festooned with a tiny umbrella.
Wee Willie Winkie (1937). Shirley Temple plays a girl named Priscilla who is sent with her mother to live in a British army outpost in early 1900s India. Unlike many of her other flicks, this film comes with a pedigree — it was based on a Rudyard Kipling story, John Ford directed (I can’t really picture the macho Ford growling “Play this scene cuter, will ya Shirley,” can you?), and co-heading with Shirley was recent Oscar winner Victor McLaglen. All those ingredients make this kiddie adventure a little less grating than usual, even somewhat touching at times. Sure, Shirley seems to be laying on the adorableness a bit thickly here, but that girl had such incredible poise and presence for someone so young. She is really kind of fascinating to watch, and the quality on display throughout makes Winkie one of her better starring efforts (1939’s The Little Princess will always be my fave Temple movie, however).

Learning the Facts of Life

Nice: remember the YouTube user that I’ve written about before who did those montages of opening credits from forgotten ’80s/’90s TV shows? The one that was taken off YouTube? He’s back. Better hurry up and watch invaluable stuff like this before it disappears again: