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Monthly Archives: March 2010

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Weekly Mishmash: March 14-20

The Bad Sleep Well (1960). Another week, another Kurosawa. 1960’s The Bad Sleep Well is a contemporary melodrama with Toshiro Mifune as a man who worms his way into a corrupt company to take revenge on the men who killed his father. The film opens with an elaborate wedding ceremony which brilliantly introduces each character and their place in the story; from there on it’s a deliriously overdone ride with double crossing, death threats and fake ghosts aplenty (which also falls apart and goes on too long, but that’s a common Kurosawa problem). I’m not sure if this film is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek and over the top, but I like to think of it as Kurosawa’s version of an Douglas Sirk potboiler or a silly but absorbing Warner Bros. melodrama from the ’40s. High and Low is a much better movie from the same period, but I completely enjoyed this one as well.

Departures (2008). This slick, sentimental Japanese drama is probably best known for being a surprise recipient of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar last year. In it, a cellist (Masahiro Motoki) finds himself adrift when his orchestra disbands. He stumbles into a new position helping to prepare the recently deceased for cremation, a move that alienates his wife and friends. Picture a Japanese Six Feet Under with a bit of Field of Dreams father-son bonding porn and you’re somewhat there — an odd amalgam of comedy and heart-tugging drama that somehow works. It was most interesting to me as a demonstration of how the Japanese view death and the mourning process. In that respect, the film was an eye-opener. The film also has a huge asset in leading man Motoki, who is very appealing (handsome, too). His perplexed curiosity drives the film, and us, to a satisfying conclusion.
Ella Cinders (1926). Last night, Christopher and I gathered up some friends and caught the latest in a series of silent films playing locally in a grand 1920s theater with live organ accompaniment (see also Silent Saturday). Last night’s selection was the charming rags-to-riches tale Ella Cinders starring the unjustly forgotten Colleen Moore. Both of us love old movies with a Hollywood/moviemaking setting and this one is no exception. It’s typical of its era, with a simple, pat storyline and upbeat ending. With her black bob hairstyle, Miss Moore comes across like a perky hybrid of Lillian Gish and Louise Brooks. She’s no match for either in the acting department, but she certainly has the charm and panache to carry a film on her own. This is the fist vehicle of hers I’ve seen and I’m looking forward to more of Moore (her talkie version of The Scarlet Letter is on the ‘ol Netflix queue).
Fargo (1996). Another ’90s classic that I haven’t seen until now, Fargo is a pretty universally praised dark comedy but I have read a few grumblings that it’s too dark and violent and that Joel and Ethan Coen treat the characters in an overly cartoonish, condescending manner. I could see that a little, but mostly I was too wrapped up in that absorbing story to care. The acting was across the board terrific, and I loved the washed out cinematography of a chilly, desolate North Dakota. The only quibble I have with this film is its opening “based on a true story” text. It turns out the disclaimer is completely false, but why even have it in the first place? I also admire films like this that take on the challenge of being set in a recent past. Fargo takes place in the year 1987, less than a decade before it was filmed. It’s always interesting to watch the details (sweaters, cars, etc.) to see how accurately they captured the era; in this case, they got it right.
book_homersodysseyHomer’s Odyssey by Gwen Cooper. This book was a holiday gift from one of Christopher’s co-workers; C. enjoyed it so much he handed it off to me. Homer’s Odyssey is about author Gwen Cooper’s amazing cat Homer, midnight black and blind since birth. Instead of being an object of sympathy, Homer’s fearless and playful attitude toward life becomes a source of inspiration to Cooper, her friends and family, and finally the rest of us. It’s a sweet tale, one that probably wouldn’t convert any non-cat lovers but ideal light reading for those of us with special bonds with our feline friends. The most compelling section of the book deals with the aftermath of 9/11, with Homer and Cooper’s two other cats trapped in an apartment located not far from the World Trade Center. Needless to say the cats were shaken but made it out okay, but the account adds a new, small dimension to that terrible day. Read more about Homer at Gwen Cooper’s official site.

Two Tickets to Paradis

A few months back, I stumbled across this awesome music sharing weblog called The Isle of Deserted Pop Stars. Generally speaking, this blog unearths semi-forgotten dance pop from the late ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s — the kind of slickly produced, no longer available major label stuff that is too recent to be nostalgic, yet also obscure enough to fly under everyone’s radar (even when it was new). A narrowly focused project like this could only be of interest to someone who’d enjoy hearing an entire album by ’80s Madonna clone Regina, but I’m totally digging it.

I’ve downloaded a bunch of albums off this site. So far my favorite is the self-titled 1992 album by French chanteuse Vanessa Paradis, a project noted for being produced and mostly written by Paradis’ then-boyfriend, Lenny Kravitz. I’ve never much taken to Kravitz and his overbaked neo-soul, but on this album he did a fantastic job of tailoring various retro styles to the limited yet captivating voice of Ms. Paradis. Which brings me to the videos of the day. First is the single “Be My Baby” — despite having an irresistible Motown inspired groove and being a huge hit across Europe, this tune inexplicably failed to catch on in the U.S. If anything demands a comprehensive CIA investigation, it’s that. I’ve also included the video for Paradis’ follow-up single “Sunday Monday,” which settles into more of a flower-power hippie pop groove. Bon!

Weekly Mishmash: March 7-14

playbill_avenueqAvenue Q. A mishmash first — theat-ah! I’ve been longing to see Avenue Q ever since hearing an interview with the show’s two songwriters professing their love for Sesame Street and The Electric Company (one even sung the latter’s T-I-O-N tune, neat). The soundtrack has been a popular play in our house for years, but we haven’t seen the whole show in performance until last week. Although the cast in this touring production was a shade less polished than the Broadway cast, we totally enjoyed it. People claim the show is pretty racy, but in actuality the humor is on the same level as your average PG-13 rated comedy. The book and music are very hip and knowing, as exemplified by “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” below. And I loved the graphic shout-outs to Sesame and Electric shown via onstage monitors. It would have been cool to have seen this in a smaller theater when it was just starting out, since the cavernous Grady Gammage Auditorium in Tempe was a bit outsized for the show’s purpose, but nonetheless this was a great thing to experience with an enthusiastic cast and audience.

Citizen Ruth (1996). Laura Dern as a paint-huffing loser who finds herself pregnant for a fourth time while imprisoned. She is bailed out by a Christian family and becomes the center of a heated tug of war between pro-life and pro-choice forces who want to use her for their own means. Being a big fan of Alexander Payne’s Election and Sideways, I looked forward to his first feature and for the most part I wasn’t disappointed. The film is filled to the brim with colorful characters who are only grounded enough to not look like human cartoons. Payne doesn’t firmly side with either group, and seems to take the position that having a myopic view on any issue regardless of one’s viewpoint is unhealthy. Generally I liked the casting, except that Laura Dern’s dim bulb character grated as the film progressed (for too long). Having the film revolve around someone so obviously stupid was an interesting change from the norm, however.
The Format — Dog Problems. Possessing an album’s worth of eMusic credits and a yen for something power poppy, I decided to give this acclaimed 2006 album from the now defunct Phoenix area duo The Format a try. Excellent album, tuneful throughout, with just enough quasi-psychedelic circuslike touches to not be annoying. The band sounds like a classic power pop outfit most reminiscent of ’90s faves Jellyfish. Unsurprisingly, the group did cover Jellyfish’s “Gluttony of Symphony” for the import version of this album. Best tracks: “Time Bomb,” “The Compromise.”
Ikiru (1952). Our first viewing from TCM‘s month long Akira Kurosawa tribute coincides with a bunch of Kurosawa Criterion DVDs arriving via Netflix. I fear we may be Kurosawaed out soon, but so far the viewing has been fascinating. Ikiru is one of his most acclaimed, a film at turns both touching and mind-meltingly dull. In it, a meek government worker (unblinking Kanji Watanabe) undergoes a crisis when informed that he only has a year to live. At first he decides to splurge on booze and women in his final months, but then he experiences an epiphany and works to build a playground on land that was previously held up in a mess of bureaucratic red tape. A great concept that many can identify with — what if I never leave my mark on the world? — explored sensitively by Kurosawa with several beautifully filmed slice-of-life vignettes. Unfortunately the film is too long by at least an hour, bogged down by lots of talky, pointless scenes that only point out Watanabe’s annoying passivity. Undoubtably there’s a lot to this film that resonates to Japanese postwar culture and social mores of the time. With much of it, however, we were bored silly. Next, please.
Oliver! (1968). A TCM 31 Days of Oscar remnant that I watched in bits and pieces over a weeklong period. Perhaps not the best viewing setup, but I took it better this way. This splashy Dickens adaptation is a huge, impressive production with several enjoyable musical sequences (“Consider Yourself” is a highlight) and a nail-biting climax. The film on the whole just seemed too big and impersonal. Though pleasing, I don’t understand why it won Best Picture for 1968. Never-nominated 2001: A Space Odyssey wound up being the true celluloid achievement for that year, but Oliver!‘s competitors Funny Girl and The Lion In Winter are more absorbing and better made.
box_roseRose of Washington Square (1939). Another musical in what wound up being an all-singing, all-dancing week. This is a typically nostalgic Fox production, a frothy and fake vehicle for Alice Faye as a fictionalized Fanny Brice type singer rising to fame in 1910s New York and being wooed by smooth cad Tyrone Power. This was a lighthearted and fun movie, one made momentarily uncomfortable by Al Jolson playing himself in blackface makeup. Mostly we got this due to the fact that Joyce Compton has a relatively meaty role as Faye’s sidekick. Joycie is her own perky self throughout; she even gets to share a dramatic scene with Jolson. Most of the film’s musical sequences are straightforward stage performances, nicely gimmick free. Alice Faye and a chorusful of dancers doing amazing things with cigarettes in the title number is one of those wonderful non-p.c. moments that one can only find in the world of black and white movies.

Friday Fun

Christopher had the day off work today, so we decided to head out to Scottsdale and Tempe for some outdoor fun. Our first stop was Desert Botanical Gardens. This place is a a total snowbird tourist magnet, but it’s also a Phoenix area institution that reminds us of the beautiful flora and fauna that can still be found around here. C. had free passes, which included a special butterfly exhibit. The butterflies were great, and several of them were oddly attracted to my green shirt. After the gardens, we went thrift shopping and I found a set of small brown melamine bowls for my secret project. Then it was lunch at our favorite Mexican eatery in the area, La Fonda (a place that has stood in the same Scottsdale strip mall since I was a wee one!). We then drove to nearby Tempe to view the lake pouring water into the Salt River, and an exhibit on Chuck Jones at the Tempe Center for the Arts. The Jones exhibit was fantastic. It was mostly paintings and cericels from Jones’ personal collection, along with pencil drawings and other wonderful artifacts from the Warner Bros. cartoon vaults. A nice day — now I’m exhausted!





C Is for Cookie

Taken off Cartoon Brew, let’s take a moment to enjoy the playful music video “Chocolate” by Mexican pop duo Jesse & Joy. Those are animated cookies, folks. I hate to quote Rachael Ray here, but yummers.

Weekly Mishmash: February 28-March 6

My Kid Could Paint That (2007). Good yet haphazard documentary on child prodigy painter Marla Olmstead, who became a mid-2000s media sensation with a series of abstract canvases far too sophisticated to be the work of a six-year-old. Director Amir Bar-Lev intended for this to be a straightforward look at Olmstead and her doting parents, until a 60 Minutes profile captured during filming revealed that Marla may have gotten help from her dad, Mark Olmstead. Personally, I smelled b.s. on the smarmy dad from the start. Despite the scandal, Bar-Lev doesn’t take a firm position either way — which actually hurts more than helps the film. There are many uncomfortable yet compelling scenes of the family members behaving weirdly. Marla is often shown painting, or more accurately smearing paint around into a mass of brown goo the way an average kid would. She seems more interested in the tactile experience of moving goop around on a surface, rather than the art itself. Meanwhile, the dad and art dealer play their p.r. games and a tacky, rich couple are seen dropping $20K on a painting before speeding away in a Hummer. The ’00s, wasn’t it a time?
No Country For Old Men (2007). Stuck this on my Netflix queue when it was new and forgot about it until the DVD arrived here last week. This is an excellent, potent film, although I could sense two conflicting p.o.v.s at work here. For the first two thirds, it’s a gripping tale of Josh Brolin coming across stolen drug money and creepy Javier Bardem’s attempts to get it back. Joel and Ethan Coen do a great job of evoking dusty, morally bankrupt doings in rural Texas of 1980. The film’s tone then shifts in its final third to weathered sheriff Tommy Lee Jones and his puzzlement over the changing times he lives in. Very Cormac McCarthy, in other words, right up to the vague ending. Many viewers apparently didn’t favor this turn, but I found it effective and thought provoking. Bardem’s chilling, dead-eyed character is not so easy to forget.
2012 (2009). Stupid disaster flick, even by Roland Emmerich standards. Special effects of a disintegrating Los Angeles are impressive if on a scale too large to be truly believable.
dvd_unholyloveUnholy Love (1932). This interesting Pre-Code telling of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was among the handful of cheapie DVDs from Alpha Video that Christopher recently purchased. Unholy Love was a special request from me since, as you can see from the box art, Joyce Compton takes center stage in it. Although she is third billed behind silent-era actors H. B. Warner and Lila Lee, Compton actually has the most screen time as a flirty gardener’s daughter who slinks her way into high society. It’s a fun role and Joyce has a field day with it, even if at this early point in her career she doesn’t quite have the acting chops to effectively pull it off. Generally this film is a leaden-paced, typical melodrama. Probably its biggest value is of historical interest, since this independent production counts as one of the few earlier appearances of Compton’s currently available on DVD. It was a pleasure watching her in a dramatic turn (and a lead!) very atypical of the comic relief she was eventually best known for; your mileage may vary.
Various — Journey to Paradise: The Larry Levan Story. A 2006 two disc compilation from Rhino Records saluting legendary disco deejay Larry Levan, heavy on the Warner Bros.-owned dance music. I never noticed this one before, but when it popped up on eMusic as a download for the same price that single albums usually go for, I grabbed it. It’s an uplifting and laid-back set, emphasizing earthy, R&B-based dance music from roughly 1979-82 over the cheesy polyester disco we all know and loathe. When it comes to dance, I’m a bit of a non-purist who prefers radio-friendly edited songs over endless 12″ mixes. This set is heavy on the latter, but luckily many of the mixes are enjoyable and the songs themselves are far from overexposed. The inclusion of white groups Yazoo and Talking Heads serve as a nifty reminder of when the R&B world briefly flirted with New Wave. If you could download only one tune, pick Change’s “Paradise” — a tune that sums up Levan’s life-affirming m.o. better than anything else.