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Monthly Archives: February 2010

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Weekly Mishmash: February 7-13

Julia (1977). I’ve been wanting to see this one for years — Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman and Vanessa Redgrave as the title character, Hellman’s childhood friend, who takes a different path that leads both to intrigue in wartime Europe. The film certainly has the polish of an Oscar-winning drama, but all in all I was somewhat disappointed. Redgrave did a great job, but Fonda is too mannered and fussy, and I really don’t know why Jason Robards Jr. netted an Oscar for his few scenes as Hellman’s lover Dashiell Hammett. I also wish the film concentrated more on Hellman’s writing career (we see her busily working on something, but frustratingly don’t know what), and less on the standard WWII spying angle. In her first film, Meryl Streep has an amusing, brief scene here as Fonda’s fair weather friend.
poster_moonriseMoonrise (1948). Generally I find much of what TCM offers in its yearly 31 Days of Oscar boring as all get out, but I made an exception for a rare showing Frank Borzage’s moody noir Moonrise (which only got one nomination the year it came out — for sound mixing). This one stars underrated Dane Clark as a young man who is ostracized in his small Southern town for his dad going to the gallows. Convinced he has bad blood, he accidentally kills one of his tormentors (Lloyd Bridges) and takes refuge with a sweet schoolteacher (Gail Russell) who counts among the few who see the good in him. This was a pretty nice film, hokey at times but beautifully acted and photographed. I always liked Dane Clark and his “average joe” appeal, and he’s well matched with the ethereal Russell (contrary to the poster art, the two do not resemble Lawrence Olivier and Vivien Leigh!). At times I felt like Borzage was laying the romantic atmosphere on a bit thick, perhaps to make up for the script’s shortcomings. There are, however, a lot of effective cloaked with Southern gothic atmosphere. Much of the film takes place outdoors, on artfully lit sets that highlight the characters’ unspoken yearnings. Highlight: ferris wheel scene.
9 (2009). A post apocalyptic animated opus that disappeared from theaters faster than Heidi Montag’s barely perceptible crows feet. I found it a moderate success with stunning visuals making up for its myriad shortcomings. With a cast of doll-like creatures trying to save themselves in a battle-scarred landscape full of the machines that destroyed humanity, this premise is bleaker than bleak. Even the hopeful ending isn’t all that hopeful, and the fact that this feels like a short film (over) expanded to feature-length doesn’t help things. Still, I loved the fully realized steampunk/industrial ’40s setting, and the variations between the creatures was fascinating. Although this does bear the imprimatur of co-producer Tim Burton, even Burton himself rarely goes to the bleak places that creator Shane Acker journeys to here — which is somewhat admirable for a kiddie film.
Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America (VH1). Excellent documentary which almost — almost — makes up for the rest of the crap being played on VH1. Seek it out if you can and get down with yo’ bad self. Or at the very least, check out this clip of the famed Soul Train line dancers in action:

Viva Villa! (1934). Another TCM 31 Days of Oscar viewing, this historical biopic traces the life of Pancho Villa and his conquest of Mexico with an utterly caucasian cast headed by burly Wallace Beery. Yes, Beery seems about as Mexican as a Taco Bell Chalupa, but I’d enjoy him in just about anything and this rip roaring actioner is no exception to the rule. Despite some well-reported behind the scenes turmoil, this is a smooth and nicely paced film that defies its nearly two hour length. I can’t vouch for the historical accuracy on display, but as far as mid-’30s MGM extravaganzas go it holds up pretty well. It kind of makes me wonder what Mexicans think of the film (is it stereotypical or true to life?).
The Wedding Banquet (1993). Uh huh… yet another movie that I’d waited years to see. This one proves that writer-director Ang Lee had the terrific domestic drama thing going on almost right off the bat (I haven’t seen his debut feature, 1992’s Pushing Hands — and from what Lee says apparently he doesn’t want anyone else seeing it, either). About an assimilated Chinese-American who hastily marries to hide his gayness from his traditional parents, this boasts a lot of funny true-to-life scenes and even more warmth and soul. I’d hasten to truly call it a gay film, since the clash of cultures between the traditional and modern Chinese is a bigger theme here than the gay thing. The atmosphere throughout is very early ’90s indie-ish, but all that knowing dialogue (mostly not English) helps make it a timeless film.

Go, Betty, Go!

Maybe it’s the Snickers commercial on the Super Bowl, but it seems like Betty White is everywhere these days. Now she’s the subject of a massive fan campaign on Facebook to get her to host Saturday Night Live (I happily joined this group — invited by, oddly enough, actress June Lockhart). NPR’s Linda Holmes makes a compelling case that it’s in SNL’s best interest to land Betty that hosting gig.

Think Pink!

Today’s video of Kay Thompson’s “Think Pink” number from Funny Face is cheating a bit, since I already posted this on Facebook two weeks ago… but the whole thing is so fabulous it deserves an encore here. The effects with split screens and such were pretty advanced for 1957, and for pure visual flair you can’t beat model Suzy Parker and her animated toothpaste. While viewing just remember, there isn’t the slightest excuse for plum or puce — or chartreuse.

The Geekiest Book on Earth

book_dlandencycChris Strodder’s book The Disneyland Encyclopedia: The Unofficial, Unauthorized, and Unprecedented History of Every Land, Attraction, Restaurant, Shop, and Event in the Original Magic Kingdom (whew) was a holiday gift from my spouse that I just finished reading — cover to cover. What Strodder has done here is compile every attraction, restaurant, and shop that has ever existed within Anaheim Disneyland’s perimeter berm (even the berm itself gets an entry!). Also included are profiles of notable people involved in the park’s history and tantalizing glimpses at lands and attractions that were planned, but never built. This book contained a lot of fascinating info that even a Disneyland History geek like me didn’t know. Stoddard’s writing style is enthusiastic and well-informed, full of delicious factoids — and blessedly different from the upbeat blathering that characterizes most Disney fansites. Just read his little bio of Walt Disney himself to get a feel of the even-handed but fun tone present throughout this book. Want to know more about Aunt Jemima’s Pancake House, the Main Street Electrical Parade, Princess Fantasy Faire, the Monsanto Hall of Chemistry, or even the expertly themed restrooms? It’s all in here.

Funny postscript — one of the first things I checked in this book was the Wizard of Bras shop (did you know one could shop for ladies’ unmentionables on Main Street?). Sure enough, it’s listed in here. I mistakenly thought the shop itself was called Wizard of Bras, but that was actually the name of a display that was housed inside the more humbly monikered Intimate Apparel store which only operated during the first two years of Disneyland’s existence. You learn something new every day.

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.).