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Monthly Archives: February 2010

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Weekly Mishmash: February 21-27

album_pattiaustinPatti Austin – Gettin’ Away With Murder. A delightful mid-’80s R&B album downloaded off eMusic, this set showcases the impressive pipes of Patti Austin and the nascent style of producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis in total elegance. I was surprised at how good this album was, and it holds up better today than similar R&B albums from the same year (1985) put out by the much famouser likes of Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder. I think the key to its success is Austin herself, who approaches this album like a super polished jazz singer trying out a different style on a lark. Her warm singing complements the sparkling Jam/Lewis production style well, highlighted on the semi-hit “The Heat of Heat.” From what I gather, a few other producers worked on this LP but it has a nice, consistent tone despite covering both balladry (“Summer Is The Coldest Time Of Year”) and the dancefloor (“Honey For The Bees,” previously recorded by Alison Moyet). Excellent. Throw in Austin’s perky 1981 single “Every Home Should Have One” and you have a bona fide party.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Thanks to TCM, here’s another film to cross off the “Best Picture winners I haven’t seen” list. This was a very good, compelling widescreen actioner firmly in the tradition of David Lean’s other wide screen o-rama epics (Lawrence of Arabia, and the as yet unseen by yours truly Doctor Zhivago). William Holden, Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa make for a formidable leading trio, the bridge itself is impressive as all get out, and there are many beautiful shots of the Sri Lankan jungles that seem tailor made for the big screen (those bats!). On a sour note I was spoiled ahead of time by the ending — heck, it’s even pictured on the friggin’ DVD box design — but nonetheless I had a good time getting there. In the next few weeks I will be watching another big Best Picture, 1968’s Oliver!, but I have a feeling it won’t be as splendid as this one.
Compulsion (1958). Good, not great, courtroom drama based on the infamous Leopold and Loeb trial of the ’20s. The names are changed and several incidents are made-up, but the film follows the same basic story of two arrogant college students (Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman) who become media sensations as they are tried for the cold blooded murder of a child. Orson Welles plays their Clarence Darrow substitute defense lawyer. This is a standard ’50s melodrama made more interesting if one has some background on the real Leopold and Loeb case. The film adds an unnecessary romantic subplot involving classmates of the two men (played by Diane Varsi and Martin Milner) and suffers from Hayes Code restrictions, but otherwise it is a competently made drama. The filmmakers had to make many adjustments so the film wouldn’t be pure docudrama, but the few accurate bits that made it through (recreating a famous courtroom photo of the duo, for example) make it a diverting enough watch for true crime buffs.
poster_drunkenDrunken Angel (1948). An early Akira Kurasawa/Toshiro Mifune collaboration (their first, actually), quite satisfying if not in the same league as Stray Dog. In a showy supporting role, Mifune plays a hot-headed Yazuka gangster who unwillingly has to consult with doctor Takashi Shimura when his failing health chips away on the stranglehold he has over the depressing little hamlet he controls. Kurosawa keeps things nicely controlled and effectively gives a sense of the desperation of the varied city dwellers in this film, including several heavy-handed shots of the bubbling, trash-strewn bog that the men pass by on a daily basis. Shimura does a great job as the frustrated doctor, and Mifune is simply amazing to watch as he slowly transforms into a gaunt, crazed mental case. Great ending, too. I was happy to find my fave scene from this film on YouTube, a wacky musical moment starring (apparently) the Japanese equivalent of Betty Hutton:

The Eye (2002). After an operation to restore her sight, a girl (Angelica Lee) can now see the dead. That simple premise forms the backbone for this scary Asian movie, which among scary Asian movies ranks below Ju-On (The Grudge) or Ringu but far above any of the crass American remakes of the same (including this one, which got a re-do in 2008 with Jessica Alba). This one has its share of shudder-inducing moments, and its scares come from nicely low-tech methods — only the climactic scene set on a busy street uses modern CGI. The film gets a bit poky and dialogue-heavy at times, but both of us enjoyed it. I appreciated the fact that the female lead wasn’t as passive as other Asian horror leads which tend toward the hyper-wimpy. An effectively creepy and subdued film, unlike our next selection…
Paranormal Activity (2004). This mico-budgeted scare flick became the surprise hit of 2009 in true Blair Witch fashion, but overall I found it kind of “meh”. This film follows a young woman (Katie Featherson) who is fearful that the mysterious spirit that haunted her in childhood has come back to roost in the San Diego home of her boyfriend (Micah Sloat). The skeptical guy decides to videotape them as they sleep in an effort to catch the punking ghostie on camera. This really amounts to being a glorified home movie with so-so acting and few scares. Most annoying is the fact that the film never leaves the house, an ugly cookie-cutter manse filled with terrible furniture (perhaps the ghost is Sam Walton, thanking the couple for their many Wal-Mart purchases). This is also another one of those movies in which the characters are always doing stupid things for no apparent reason. For example, the girl begs the guy not to get a ouija board, and in the next scene he’s holding a ouija board. Stay away!
Splendor in the Grass (1961). Another TCM “31 Days of Oscar” netting, Elia Kazan’s soapy yet engrossing tale of young lust was another one of those films on my to-see list. Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty play teenagers in 1920s Kansas grappling with their feelings for each other amidst leering classmates and judgmental family members. This was a nicely played, interesting film despite feeling like an inferior knockoff of Kazan’s East of Eden. The leads are very attractive and talented, which really helps when the film gets bogged down in soapy theatrics in its second half. Despite all that, it is a very evocative and well-played film right up to the bittersweet finale.

They’re Fantastic, Made ‘o Plastic

Just finished scanning and uploading a bunch of random imagery for my Ephemera, Ads Ads Ads and Cool Vintage Illustration flickr sets. A few came from a Modern Plastics magazine annual from 1966 that C. recently acquired — including this lovely ad for Plexiglas (one ‘s’ thank you). These also went into the Vintage Industry flickr group. Ephemeral fun for all!


Special FX (’90s Edition)

Today’s videos are artifacts from the dorky yet lovable early years of Fox’s FX cable channel. These promos date from when the network went under the tagline “TV Made Fresh Daily,” broadcasting a variety of shows from their funky studios in New York City. Although you might recognize a few faces that later went on to better things (Tom Bergeron, Jeff Probst), mostly the channel was a low-key affair staffed by friendly guy- and girl-next-door types. I think Fox meant it to feel like a bunch of your friends got together and put on a show. Sandwiched between reruns of Batman and Mission: Impossible, the channel’s slate of original programs covered a variety of subjects. My own favorite was Personal FX, the antiques and collectibles show. I was a regular viewer despite the fact that it was hosted by a complete airhead (Claire Carter) who knew nothing about antiques and collectibles. At least co-host John Burke brought on the hunk appeal. Burke later hosted on the pre-acronym American Movie Classics, and recently I was surprised to find him in a commercial endorsing some kind of back pain gadget.

Of course, FX is now a powerhouse network with acclaimed series like Damages and Nip/Tuck on their schedule — but guess what? I never watch them. I actually prefer the old, dorky FX. Some things actually work better if they haven’t been mass marketed and focus tested to death.

Bill, When Are You Coming Back?

book_calvinIn Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and His Revolutionary Comic Strip, Nevin Martell sets himself up with the impossible task of tracking down someone notorious for being more fame-averse than Greta Garbo and J.D. Salinger combined. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will tell you that I had a fun time reading this book. It’s equal parts memoir, history, and trying to understand an enigma. The tales about Bill Watterson and the genesis of his legendary Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, trying to get his career off the ground after years of frustration, and his love/hate relationship with success are fascinating. Watterson’s well known resistance to any and all merchandising of his characters is also fully explored here, and it adds another dimension to this complex man. It’s a frustrating tact to take, but I can understand it. It called to mind how much I cherished the Peanuts characters as a child, when what I really loved was the ancillary stuff (dolls, TV specials). Indeed, I didn’t fully appreciate Schulz’s comic itself until the Fantagraphics Complete Peanuts volumes came out. The result of Watterson’s stance is letting the comic strip speak for itself, revealing it to be one of the most brilliant explorations of childhood imagination ever committed to ink and paper. Martell shares a similarly glowing view of the strip throughout this book, ruminating in an appealing, leisurely style that oftentimes comes across not so flatteringly like magazine writing. Overall, it’s not a very substantial book (at times I wish Martell didn’t inject so much of himself in the content), but the journey he takes is an enjoyable one to tag along with.

Weekly Mishmash: February 14-20

album_cruiseJulee Cruise — Floating into the Night. An album I’ve been wanting to hear ever since it came out 21 (!) years ago. The 1989 fusion of the scintillating Ms. Cruise, arranger Angelo Badalamenti, and director David Lynch is a spellbinding exercise in dream pop. Much of the album floats by in a dreamlike, eerie atmosphere with the occasional ’50s pop flourish (e.g. the abstract sax solo on “Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart”). “Falling,” a vocal rendition of the Twin Peaks theme, is the best-known tune here, but I like how the album’s second half delves into the darker, sleepier mood of a sustained lullaby. Listening to it from this distance makes me realize how truly one-of-a-kind this collaboration was, although it inspires cravings for cherry pie and damn fine coffee.
49 Up (2006). The most recent chapter in Michael Apted’s astonishing documentary series that profiles several “average” British citizens at seven year intervals from childhood through middle age. At this stage, the subjects are feeling very ambivalent about revisiting Apted and the strange celebrity that comes as a result of these films. It makes for voyeuristic but compelling viewing. Mostly it feels like catching up with old friends that you haven’t seen in a while. I’m always amazed at the editing, which has curious, gawky children gradually morphing into self-aware, pudgy adults. It must be somewhat painful for these people having to re-evaluate their lives every seven years, but I hope they’re aware of the great contributions they’re making to film history.
Hunger (2008). Great film about the brutal treatment of IRA members in the early ’80s British prison system, culminating in the two month hunger strike of resistance leader Bobby Sands (brilliantly played by actor Michael Fassbender). Director Steve McQueen crafted this film into an impressionistic mood piece that gradually draws the viewer in. The approach works infinitely better than it would have been with strict, straightforward storytelling. The film is filled with static shots of things like the prisoners’ feces-smeared cell walls, ugly things that look strangely beautiful in this setting. The gradual deterioration of Fassbender’s body fits into that milieu, as well. I was puzzled as to why McQueen focused on a prison guard, then an average prisoner, then Sands in the course of the film. It may have made more sense to have it centered around a few characters throughout — nonetheless, this film is an uneasy, unforgettable experience.
Orphan (2009). Well-made but far from subtle horror flick about a well-heeled couple (Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga) who adopt a creepy Russian girl with precocious talents for folksy paintings and quasi-Victorian fashions. After settling in with the couple’s other two children, things start to go very, very wrong and the concerned ma starts to suspect that little Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) isn’t who she appears to be. This is a pretty stupid, predictable little potboiler, but it’s fun. I was entertained by the way this film so liberally takes cues from other “bad child” movies such as The Bad Seed and The Good Son (the giant treehouse built prohibitively high above ground level in the latter). The cast seems committed — I was particularly impressed with Aryana Engineer as the youngest kid — but this is pure hokum from start to finish. It might even have the makings for the next camp classic.

ABC’s Funshine Saturday

A fun promo film for ABC’s Fall 1974 daytime and Saturday morning lineup includes shows familiar (The Brady Bunch, already a rerun staple mere months after getting cancelled in prime time) and unfamiliar (The Girl in My Life). That animated gumball machine on the ABC Afterschool Special elicits a real deja vu feeling here!