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Weekly Mishmash: January 31-February 6

AKA (2002). Cheap but engaging film about a poor bloke (boyishly handsome Matthew Leitch) who worms his way into British upper crust society by pretending to be someone he isn’t. This gay-themed drama doesn’t do much to hide its meager budget, and straight-to-video camerwork and clumsy direction doesn’t help matters either. Also, given the talent on display (Diana Quick, Bill Nighy), the acting can be startlingly amateurish. I found it interesting despite all that; Christopher liked it much more than I did. Probably the coolest feature of the DVD is the option to watch the film in triptych form, with three takes of the same scenes playing simultaneously. It helped make this unexceptional flick a bit more watchable.
book_aaads1900All American Ads 1900-1919, edited by Jim Heimann. Having a bulging shelf full of the other All American Ads books, I jumped at the chance when Taschen recently had this volume on discount. You would think that advertising in these early 20th century years would be visually stuffy and filled with conservative Victorian values, but I was actually disarmed by how subtle and lovely many of these ads were. Since printing methods weren’t yet advanced enough to take advantage of photography, most ads of the era depended heavily on illustration to the point where the entire ad, text and all, were rendered on the artist’s canvas. And what gorgeous illustrations they are! Apparently having little more than a sumptuous rendering of a happy customer was enough of a “hard sell” back then. Some of the best pages here are campaigns by familiar brands like Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Cream of Wheat and Old Dutch Cleanser. I also enjoyed spotting the work of well-known illustrators such as J.C. Leyendecker and Coles Phillips, whose “fade away ladies” were as much an icon of their era as the Gibson Girl (1890s) or the Vargas pinup (1940s) were for theirs. Pretty nifty visual resource, and it’s already given me inspiration for my next (top secret for the moment) project.
Bright Star (2009). Gorgeous to look at but strangely static film, about the brief but passionate romance between penniless poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his well-dressed lady love, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). I though Jane Campion did a pretty good job directing this story, aided by some wonderful cinematography that paints various sparsely decorated interiors with the delicacy of a Vermeer painting. I also liked the historically accurate costume design, which was the only area in which this film was honored with an Oscar nomination (the photography ought to have made the cut as well). Unfortunately, the film is deadly slow at times, and the blandness of the two leads makes it play more like a BBC America time-filler than it needed to be. Normally I don’t favor star power in a film like this, but here I feel like it was desperately needed (as a matter of fact, probably the only cast member I truly liked was the precocious little red haired girl).
City of God (2002). Rented this Brazilian drug running epic after noticing that it placed in the IMDb top 250. For a film that I’d never heard of, I was surprised to see it ranked up in the top twenty. This is an audaciously filmed, fast paced romp that fits squarely within the tastes of IMDb voters (which don’t necessarily overlap with mine, but that’s a different entry). Described as a Brazilian Goodfellas, this film tracks the fortunes of a group of young men who turn to drug dealing, gangs and hoodlumlike behavior as a way to escape the Cidade de Deus (City of God), a stifling 1960s housing project for the poor. Moving into the ’70s, the film focuses on two young products of that desperate environment who took on different paths — one as a photographer and the other as the kingpin of a drug dealing network. At times I felt like this film was too ambitious and I wish it had been reigned in a bit, perhaps by ditching the ’60s prologue. The story is also somewhat “been there, done that” in the way it unfurls, but there are so many outstanding sequences along the way that the average viewer is likely to forget that stuff. If at least a few scenes don’t elicit a “wow,” then … you must be dead. If anything, the film is very evocative of its place/time and the wild allure of Rio and Brazilian culture in general.
Erasure – Total Pop! Deluxe Box. A lesson in the dangers of letting nostalgia affect one’s purchases, I downloaded this box set despite already owning half the tracks on it. But I didn’t mind because I love Erasure, a group that has had a surprisingly longevity for the kind of sweet synth pop they purvey (only the Pet Shop Boys can match them). This set supplements their 1992 best-of Pop! The First 20 Hits with 20 more tracks covering Vince Clarke and Andy Bell’s underappreciated 1994-2007 work, along with 14 okay live recordings covering their entire career. If anything, this set proves the duo’s solid commitment to melodic synth-based dance pop — regardless of whether the genre is trendy or not (anyone remember how weird “Chorus” sounded coming out amidst the grunge explosion of 1991?). The big surprise for me was their more recent stuff, such as several charming cuts from their covers album Other People’s Songs (2003). Selections from 2007’s Light at the End of the World trend toward distressingly boring dance music, but the beauty of Erasure is that they will always have something new and intriguing to show for their next venture.
Mayor of the Sunset Strip (2004). I caught this documentary about Los Angeles quasi-celebrity Rodney Bingenheimer on the Fuse network. Totally fascinating! This film follows the impish but strangely sad Bingenheimer, famous more for befriending various musicians and promoting the L.A. music scene than for any inherent talent the guy himself possesses. The filmmakers use Rodney’s story to explore fame and the hollow pursuit of it. I still don’t know if that was a genius move or not (for all I know Rodney is truly a happy fellow and not the sad, vacant soul who comes across here), but this aspect makes for absorbing viewing. Best part: the montage of Rodney bopping away in the background of various vintage performance clips (Mamas & the Papas, Beach Boys, etc.).

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