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.

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