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Monthly Archives: April 2010

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Ingénue Times Two

Last night I got reacquainted with a compilation from 1980s Europop princess Lío and thought I’d share a few of her vintage videos here. I’d say her music is like a French version of Madonna’s stuff from that period, very strident and “of its time” but completely irresistible. The gorgeous “Mona Lisa” comes from her 1982 album Suite Sixtine. The song’s lush and romantic production came courtesy of Ron and Russell Mael, better known as New Wave duo Sparks.

And here is Lío looking her jailbaitiest while singing 1980’s “Amoureux Solitaire” from a hammock. This synth-driven gem must have been one of her biggest hits in Europe, since there are five or six different performances of this song on YouTube. Lío’s hit streak continued all the way through 1991, after which she turned to acting. Apparently she now earns her Euros as one of the judges on the French edition of American Idol. C’est la vie, as they’d say over there.

Good Humor Man

On the occasion of his dad’s 80th birthday, illustrator Drew Friedman shares a batch of vintage book covers from the man in question, Bruce Jay Friedman. I remember enjoying the elder Friedman’s The Lonely Guy’s Book Of Life in college, and I’ve always been a fan of Drew’s stippled portraits of borscht belt comedians and b-movie actors of yore (and now we’re Facebook friends!). It wasn’t until recently that I discovered the two were related. Happy birthday.

Weekly Mishmash: April 4-10

Breakin’ (1984). This breakdance opus, a product of the über-’80s cheese factory Cannon Films, was the other netting of our free Showtime weekend. Strangely enough, this and Superhero Movie both star Christopher McDonald, seen here twenty-plus years younger and several pounds thinner as a Hollywood agent with a special interest in a comely dancer (Lucinda Dickey) and her two streetwise, popping and locking buddies (Adolfo “Shabba-Doo” Quinones and Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers). OK, this is one crappily made movie bubbling over with scenes that stretch the credibility of even the showbiz la-la land it’s presenting, but as a period piece it’s fascinating stuff. The great soundtrack of high ’80s electro-funk almost made me forget how stilted the acting was. Almost. Seeing this sorta makes me wish that Turner Classic Movies would do a Cannon/Golan & Globus retrospective. Yeah, dream on.

An Education (2009). The first of what turned out to be two films centering around foolish women blinded by love. In An Education, Carey Mulligan’s preternaturally smart London teenager falls for an older man (Peter Sarsgaard) who introduces her to a world of sophistication she’d previously only dreamed of. More than anything else, this film triumphs in recreating the society and atmosphere of 1961 London. Nick Hornby’s sharp screenplay really underscores that the only options for young women back then were to either marry young or study laboriously for a career and spinsterhood. Mulligan was very good, Sarsgaard couldn’t quite get a Brit accent right, and the gorgeous duo of Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike couldn’t be more perfectly cast as (respectively) the business partner of the Sarsgaard character and his dim but glamorous girlfriend.
poster_letterwomanLetter from an Unknown Woman (1948). Here it is, one of those lost classics I’ve been wanting to see for twenty years. I was so excited to see it on the TCM schedule this month, and I must have not been alone since Robert Osborn noted in his intro that it was the most requested film from TCM viewers. Despite having a plotline that looks annoyingly quaint and un-p.c. on paper, this is one of the great romantic films of all time. In her best performance, Joan Fontaine plays a meek woman who falls for a composer (Louis Jordan) in circa 1900 Vienna. As the years go by, what was a forgotten fling for him becomes a consuming passion for her. Fontaine’s weird passivity and stalkerish behavior might be worthy of a good slap if the film didn’t treat the character with utmost nobility. Indeed, the woman has courage in her convictions and she winds up more admirable than the shallow Jordan. Mostly what I loved about this movie was the dreamy and gorgeously photographed atmosphere conjured up by director Max Ophuls (whose acclaimed European films La Ronde and Lola Montes I found insufferably twee) working on one of his few U.S. studio projects. Some scenes, such as when Fontaine and Jordan discuss their most cherished memories on a fake train, are so impeccably staged that one could get lost in them.
album_lauranyroLaura Nyro & LaBelle — Gonna Take A Miracle. My last eMusic album of the month was this 1971 collaboration that’s like an organic melding of soul and singer-songwriting. Laura Nyro’s voice is a bit of an acquired taste, but this set of covers with funky girl trio LaBelle and Philly soul producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff is an ingratiating listen. Hearing the album is like sitting in on a casual afternoon jam session with lots of finger popping and harmonizing voices. Nyro approaches the material nostalgically, even if the songs aren’t that old (one, “The Bells” by the Originals, hadn’t even been out a year by the time Nyro got to it). With the exception of a shrill and repetitive “Nowhere To Run,” this is an excellent listen.
The Savages (2007). Laura Linney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as pseudo-intellectual siblings attempting to cope with their ailing father. This film takes on a weird, cartoony tone in its first few scenes, portraying Sun City, Arizona as an oblivious suburb straight out of Edward Scissorhands (it isn’t really that way, although the streets full of pebbled lawns are really something to see). When the scenery shifts to a wintery upstate New York, however, the film takes off with quality performances by the two leads. Elder care isn’t addressed very often in movies, and here it’s addressed with realism and biting humor. Good film.

Little Bit ‘O Soul

Today’s video is a snippet of gold from the classic era of Motown records. This clip of the Temptations performing their funky b-side “Sorry Is A Sorry Word” in the Hitsville U.S.A. studios came from a 1967 CBS news report on Motown. Considering how little footage there is of the artists actually recording in the studio from back then, it’s pretty amazing. I like the lady sitting in on the conga drums. I know about the Funk Brothers, but could there have also been a Funk Sister?

This scene comes from the 2006 DVD Get Ready: The Definitive Performances 1965-72.

Weekly Mishmash: March 28-April 3

Forgive me, I’m still feeling a bit woozy from the mild earthquake in Baja California this afternoon. The mishmash is bursting with movies this week, but I’ll have to be brief.
Big Night (1996). Another one of those critically acclaimed ’90s indies that I haven’t seen ’til now. On a vague promise that Louis Prima would visit his failing restaurant, Stanley Tucci arranges with his chef brother Tony Shalhoub to prepare a feast to end all feasts. A sweet, slice-of-life movie that is specifically tuned to actors and wresting good performances from its diverse cast (unsurprising, since Tucci directed along with Campell Scott, who also appears onscreen as a smarmy auto salesman). This film didn’t exactly bowl me over, with several talky and seemingly improvised scenes that didn’t add much to the proceedings, but it does have a fabulous sense of time and place. An actor who definitely doesn’t get enough leading roles, Tucci delivers in a role that speaks more of following one’s own standards of excellence than anything else.
Escape to Paradise (1939). Last night, we had a party with our “50 cheesy old comedies on 12 DVDs” set. On the menu was this cruddy little musical, a south-of-the-border vehicle for an unappealing Wayne Newton-esque juvenille singer named Bobby Breen. Set in a South American tourist town, Breen plays a perky kid who helps out an American guy wanting to — do you really need to know this, now? We only watched it for Joyce Compton, somewhat wasted in a supporting role that sets her character up as little more than a dumb stooge. Should you have an hour to kill, the film is viewable online at Archive.org.
Perfect Strangers (1950). Catch any Ginger Rogers flicks in Turner Classic Movies‘ month-long salute last month? This Warner Bros. courtroom melodrama was one of the few on the schedule that I’d never heard of, so I gave it a curious look. In it, Ginger plays a Los Angeles woman who is too busy with personal business separating from her husband to accept jury duty. She is recruited anyhow, and ends up falling for fellow jurist Dennis Morgan during deliberations on a complex murder trial. Although I was expecting this to be either a predictable romance or a predictable courtroom drama, it actually ended up being quite the absorbing film with a sharply written and observant script. The film mostly centers on the interpersonal squabblings among the film’s diverse jurors (which includes Thelma Ritter at her snarky early best — and the voice of Fred Flintstone, Alan Reed!). The Rogers/Morgan romantic subplot slightly detracts from a film that is essentially 12 Angry Men Lite. If only for the priceless scene of Rogers exiting a trolley car and strolling in front of the gorgeous 1950 vista of L.A. City hall, this is one underrated goodie worth seeking out.
Red Cliff (2008). An epic Chinese battle, 220 a.d. style, with armadas of CGI ships and one very talented white dove. This Foreign Language Oscar nominee was directed by John Woo and stars one of our favorites, Tony Leung. Although the film had several absorbing scenes, overall it came across as too ponderous (we watched the nearly three hour cut), confusing and so intent on showing how big everything is that it lost sight of its main mission. China is a culture that venerates its own history, and it probably resonates better with them. Americans, however, must beware.
Superhero Movie (2008). Here’s irony: we recently had a free weekend of several Showtime channels, but the only films that piqued our interest were Superhero Movie and that poppin’ and lockin’ masterpiece, Breakin’ (look out for that on the 11th). This movie was stupid and at times painful with its desperate-to-please ambiance, but it was fun enough and even had several laugh out loud moments. Best casting award goes to Leslie Nielsen and Marion Ross as the main teen-turned super hero’s elderly uncle and aunt (is the fact that both actors are old enough to be his great-grandparents part of the comedy?).
Up in the Air (2009). You already know about this one by now. Good, intelligent and wryly observant, pretty much what I expected. I thought Clooney was good, Anna Kendrick was a pleasant surprise and I have no idea why Vera Farmiga got an Oscar nom. Interesting to note that Clooney’s character and motivations mirror Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day.
Upperworld (1933). My other Ginger Rogers on TCM gleaning, this is a tasty and surprisingly cynical pre-Code potboiler starring Warren William as a smooth-talking industrialist (did he play anything else?). William is a successful mogul stuck in a rut with a shallow socialite of a wife (Mary Astor) and a bratty kid (Dickie Moore) whose life is turned around when he meets comely showgirl Rogers. The two have a chaste, flirtatious relationship at first, but things turn ugly when blackmail and eventually murder enter the picture. This is a smoothly made, beautifully photographed film with an excellent cast. Rogers is at her cherubic best here playing an unpretentious girl who is oddly the only likable character in the entire film. It comes as a shock when (spoiler alert) she gets shot and dies, then the film quickly wraps up in a hasty, happy ending. Bizarre, and worth a look.

Turning Over a New Leaf

After a year, I think it’s time to give a sneak peek of my new venture — one that grew out of my frustrated inability to find work as an illustrator. I’m not going to dwell too much on the negative here, but lately it has been very difficult to find any freelance work at all. Last year, I put a lot of time and effort into sending out dozens of self-promotional postcards, only to find a chorus of crickets chirping in response. It was depressing as hell, but instead of throwing myself off a cliff I decided to channel that creative energy into something that’s on my terms. I’m making my own art and will try selling it on Etsy.

The photo below is the first fruit of my efforts. It’s a drawing of Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables screen printed atop facing pages from the book that bears her name. This was an, how we say, interesting experience. Many of the prints came out off-register and with blobby looking lines, but I might be deluded enough to believe those elements add to their funky handmade charm. They’ll get more professional looking in time. Anne is the first, but I have great designs ready for five more characters. The process has been an expensive learning experience, but I’m having a lot of fun with it. Each print is completely unique, and I think there are a lot of factors involved (nostalgia for printed books, new mommies wanting something special for their kids) that might possibly resonate with the Etsy crowd. Most of all, it’s a lovingly handcrafted project that totally reflects my style, not something someone else imposed on me. As far as I’m concerned, it’s already a success.

The Etsy store is not officially open yet. I want to get another character printed up so it’s not just Anne sitting there by herself. The shop ought to be going live in a few weeks.

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