Archive for August, 2010

Weekly Mishmash: August 22-28

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

dvd_clashofthetitansClash of the Titans (2010) and Repo Men (2010). Two DVD rentals that my spouse picked. As you can see, my spouse likes the special effects flicks. I like ‘em, too, as long as the special effects are supported by a good story and decent enough performances — two things that Clash of the Titans and Repo Men sadly lack. Repo Men is the more promising of the two, with Jude Law laying on the charm as a near-future bounty hunter type whose job entitles him to reclaim artificial organs from people who are unable to pay for them. This film plays on the current health care and financial crises in the same way the far superior Children of Men envisioned a future where George W. Bush-era foreign policy ran amok. On the plus side, the movie benefits from good work from Law, Forest Whitaker and Liev Schreiber. As the film played on, however, it devolves into Matrix-esque chases and fights, ultimately becoming an icky and pointless exercise. The Clash of the Titans remake doesn’t aspire to such bold statements, which can be a great thing if handled the right way. I remember going to see the 1981 original with a bunch of Junior High pals at the local mall-plex and having a blast. With whiz-bang CGI and action scenes galore, the remake appeals to the same popcorn mindset but I found this one strangely hollow and uninviting. Sam Worthington is a bland lead and his military buzzcut distracts to no end, the effects are overwhelming (and in 3D, no less), and the film’s many fight scenes seem to never end. Oh, and it gets worse: the brief appearance of 1981′s mechanical owl is probably the lamest celluloid sop to nostalgia since they brought back the original spaceship design in 1998′s Lost In Space (only to blow it up seconds later).
Celine Dion — The Colour of My Love. Found this for 50 cents in the markdown bin at the local Half Price Books store and it seemed to whisper “buy me” in a vaguely Franco-Canadian accent. The disc was actually well worth the two quarters it cost. On the whole, this 1993 effort is more diverse and likable than Dion’s self-titled 1991 album and not quite as dated/goofy as her English language debut, Unison. Lush ballads predominate, as epitomized by megahit “The Power Of Love,” but I found myself drawn to the lesser known tracks. The fluffy Tara Kemp-ish workout “Misled” hit the dance charts and even the top 40, odd considering I don’t remember it at all. Another beat-heavy track, “Refuse To Dance,” is notable for having Dion’s voice effectively blended in with the instrumentation, creating a moody and disarmingly experimental sojourn in the album’s second half. I also downloaded this album’s non-U.S. “Just Walk Away,” a florid Latin style ballad which fits squarely in Eurovision Song Contest territory. Most of these tracks have the same personnel she always works with. The prolific Diane Warren contributed two of the better tracks, both sweet if overlong, overproduced and vamped up like crazy. “Next Plane Out” is a typical big ballad, but the one I really dig is the Motownish “No Living Without You.” Perhaps I love it so for its similarity to another cheeseball neo-soul record from that period, Charles & Eddie’s “Would I Lie To You.” Hmmm, wonder if I could find a used Charles & Eddie CD at Half Price Books?
God’s Country (1986). Charming, thought provoking documentary on the American heartland by French director Louis Malle. It’s 1979 and Malle focuses his camera on the diverse residents of Glencoe, Minnesota, following farm families, law enforcement, bank employees and jus’ folk as they ramble about their lives and hopes for the future. In the most poignant scenes, he visits a nursing home and impartially films residents sitting glassy eyed in a room while a TV blares away. Things then turn celebratory as the film chronicles a tacky wedding ceremony in which the bride, groom and wedding party go bar hopping along the town’s main thoroughfare. In a bittersweet coda, Malle revisits the town in 1985 as residents come to grips with the disappearing ways of life caused by Reaganomics. This was completely fascinating in a personal way, having reminded this viewer of the times my family took trips to visit relatives in Nebraska. Malle not only knows how to allow his subjects to open up to the camera, he also trains his lens on interesting/quirky details such as an elaborately coiffed woman working at a slaughterhouse. In one scene, he visits a drugstore as the manager proudly shows off his establishment’s “Gay Nineties” decor theme. The place was a total trip, but it also had a personal resonance since my late grandfather once managed a very similar drugstore in a small midwestern town. It made me nostalgic, then somewhat sad as the realization hits that these places have been replaced by Wal-Marts (just as the quiet family farm has been largely co-opted by Monsanto). Sobering and well worth a look.
poster_merrywidowThe Merry Widow (1925). Erich von Stroheim’s lush, long epic got a rare broadcast on Turner Classic Movies’ recent day long salute to John Gilbert. Although there were many Gilbert films from that day that piqued my interest, I ended up with this because I’ve always been curious about his Gilbert’s co-star, Mae Murray, and the extravagance of von Stroheim productions are always worth a look. Gilbert plays the prince of a mythical, quasi-European kingdom who is smitten with visiting dancer named Sally O’Hara (Murray). Though the two are in love, his family forbids him to marry a commoner. Extenuating circumstances caused by the prince’s weaselly cousin (Roy D’Arcy) force Sally to end up wedding a creepy old guy with a foot fetish (!) instead. The man drops dead on the wedding night and she becomes… The Merry Widow. This was a suitably overstuffed affair that seemed pretty typical of 1920s cinema — it’s overlong and the acting was too affected (especially from Murray). Despite weird touches like foot fetish man and a couple of blindfolded musicians, the story was too trite to carry such an overstuffed production. As far as von Stroheim epics go, I much prefer Greed but this one has a few things going for it. Gilbert is rather staid and bland, but Murray’s showiness as a performer is a hoot. When she laughs, it’s a lusty toss back of the head and convulsive body shakes. When she cries, she transforms herself into a life-sized wet hankie with puppy dog eyes. It’s method acting squared for our Mae.
Rio Bravo (1959). While I normally wouldn’t be attracted to a late period Western starring John Wayne, this particular one directed by Howard Hawks has such a great critical reputation that I had to check it out. It didn’t disappoint. Wayne plays the sheriff of a small Texan town who is keeping criminal Claude Akins in lockup. Akins’ brother and a bunch of other meanies are terrorizing the town trying to free the man, so Wayne enlists the help of a drunk but talented gunfighter (Dean Martin), an old coot (Walter Brennan) and a cocky teen (Ricky Nelson). This was conceived as Hawks’ answer to High Noon — but instead of wimpy Gary Cooper grovelling for help from the townspeople, here we have four flawed yet commanding men taking on a challenge in an adult, responsible way. Like many Hawks films, there’s also a strong female presence with Angie Dickinson as a traveling performer who has her eye on the Duke. Dickinson seems a bit modern for the part, but she’s alluring as all get out. Martin’s nuanced performance was a big surprise, and I enjoyed his odd duet with Nelson. The film is long, but made in such a casual, appealing way that one doesn’t notice it. I actually think it’s perfectly paced, building up to the exciting climactic gunfight.
Separate Lies (2005). IFC Channel recording. This was an intriguing but strangely unsatisfying domestic drama, written and directed by Julian Fellowes. The film concerns a well-heeled contemporary British couple played by Emily Watson and Tom Wilkinson. An accident in their plush neighborhood kills their housekeeper’s husband, which triggers the unraveling of the marriage when suspicion falls on Watson and her secret lover (Rupert Everett, looking weirdly gaunt). The first thing I noticed about this film is the wonderful acting, which is top-notch. I also enjoyed the precise, photogenic interiors, whether it’s a country estate or Wilkinson’s slick office. The story is serviceable enough at first, then it delves heavily into the leads’ shifting feelings towards each other until it becomes an implausible morass. Fellowes took on a similar tact for his Oscar winning Gosford Park screenplay, using a mystery as a springboard to explore the complex relationships of its characters. That film worked brilliantly, but for some reason this one doesn’t jell and it winds up a well-intentioned, beautifully acted but inert film.

You’re Turning Violet, Violet!

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

Doing some tweaking on the site design and decided to go all purple and violet with the color scheme. We also have a cleaner, sharper version of the header graphic. These colors come from the “eggplant” section of Adobe Illustrator’s vegetable color palette; I plan to keep it this way for a year before switching the colors out again.

Another thing I have to look into eventually is finding a wider WordPress template. Having 500 pixels width for weblog entries used to be a great luxury, but now my weblog is starting to feel like Kate Moss in a world full of Kirstie Alleys. Skinny! Ideally I’d like to keep the current design, just rejigger the content area to add an extra 25% of girth. Having no talent for rejiggering things, however, this could be an insurmountable challenge.

Kodak Moment

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

This video has been passed around a lot, but I love Kodak’s precious test color footage from 1922 so much I want to share it here. It’s mesmerizing: the flicker, the color, the mannered posing. The weird looking woman in the clip’s last half is actress Mae Murray, one of the iconic silent film stars (her 1925 opus The Merry Widow just got DVR’d here at Chez Scrubbles). More info on the clip can be perused at Kodak’s A Thousand Words weblog. Now excuse me while I watch it again:

Weekly Mishmash: August 15-21

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

Seven flicks in seven days — the dog days of summer are upon us.
Bigger, Faster, Stronger (2008). Interesting documentary told in a Morgan Spurlock-like fashion, about the lure of steroids in sports and entertainment. Filmmaker Chris Bell starts it off as a fairly straightforward autobiographical tale of how his childhood obsession with Hulk Hogan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and other bulked-up action stars affected him and his two equally brawny brothers. The siblings have a healthy competitive spirit in their teen years, but as they enter adulthood the constant need to be “bigger, faster, stronger” and the hollow pursuit of the fame that goes with it leads them off into different paths. Using a healthy dose of film and TV footage and animated graphics, Bell examines the steroid debate in a funny, even-handed way. Although I don’t agree with the film’s stance that the threat of steroids and other performance enhancers are overblown, it’s Bell’s ambivalence toward the subject and the dynamic he shares with his family that really shines through. The film’s greater subject is that success in America is an illusion, a point that comes through glaringly when George W. Bush is shown giving one of his hackneyed “anyone can make it” speeches while file footage of his dad plays. Overall, the film is perhaps a bit sprawling and overlong, but very thought provoking and worth a look.
Dead Snow (2009). Another “Norwegian students trapped in the wilderness with a group of undead Nazis” movie. Christopher rented this after hearing Michael Moore recommend it on NPR. Although Moore praised it for being a top notch scarefest, the film is more of a comedy with horror elements a la Shaun of the Dead or the Scream movies. It follows a group of med students who are borrowing a friend’s cabin to have a snowy getaway, only to find that mysterious beings are hounding them at night. Eventually it’s discovered that the area was once a Nazi hideout with undead officers still patrolling the area looking for fresh human flesh to munch on. It is ludicrous, with characters doing all sorts of stupid things, but the cast was very appealing (I was sorry to see many of them offed so early) and the undead creatures are suitably frightening. Fair warning: towards the end, the film gets very bloody and gross. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
poster_divorceeThe Divorcee (1930). God help me, I’ve always like Norma Shearer. Despite the lady’s crossed eyes and fluttery demeanor, there’s something about her that keeps me coming back for more. I’ve surprisingly never seen Shearer in her Academy Award winning pre-Code melodrama The Divorcee. When it popped up on the TCM’s Summer Under the Stars schedule as part of an all Shearer day, I decided to finally see if her performance holds up. In short, it does. Shearer seems to relish playing a free-spirited “modern” woman who marries beau Chester Morris, only to find that when it comes to marital infidelity the old fashioned double standard still holds true. Although the settings are dated, that central theme actually keeps the film from becoming a relic of the times. Opening with a wild party, the film is unusually brisk for an early talkie. Shearer gets good support from Morris and Robert Montgomery (although Conrad Nagel as Norma’s ex-flame is a bit dull). Shearer from this period still seems somewhat flighty to me (I prefer the Marie Antoinette/The Women era), but her big tell-off speech to Morris is still lively and potent as ever. The fashions and various pre-Code techniques are a lot of fun, too.
The Hearst and Davies Affair (1985). Always on the lookout for intriguing stuff to watch on the basic satellite schedule, I stuck this mid-’80s made for TV biopic on the DVR when it bizarrely showed up on the Reelz channel schedule. I mean, what’s the appeal to Joe Channel Surfer of Robert Mitchum and Viginia Madsen playing William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies? This film was long, badly acted and directed in an unexceptional TV style, but it kept me intrigued if only for the film’s lush and historically accurate period details (parts were even filmed in Hearst Castle). The biggest problem with this film is that it covers too much territory in too short a time, going from when the pair first meet circa 1912 all the way through Hearst’s bankruptcy in the late ’30s. Mitchum was decent enough, more he-man than the actual Hearst. There are shots when Madsen looks eerily similar to the young Marion Davies, despite the actress lacking the earthiness of the real Davies. She’s also too thin and pretty for the film’s later scenes, looking more like a Jean Harlow clone at a time when Davies was getting plump and matronly from heavy drinking. I’m nitpicking too much, but the film was diverting in an undemanding “retro Dynasty” sorta way.
The Sting (1973). Another effort in catching up with unseen Best Pictures of the past, The Sting nabbed the big prize in a year when the superior Exorcist and American Graffiti were also up for grabs. This was a well-made genre picture with Paul Newman and Robert Redford at their charismatic best as a pair of sophisticated grifters who undergo an insanely detailed plan to bilk a millionaire. Very enjoyable, even if the direction seemed a bit pat and the film’s flat lighting gives it an unfortunate TV movie look. The production design is pretty cool, with snazzy costuming and just about every shade of brown effectively conveying a Depression-era Chicago. I also thought the casting was excellent with some nifty work from Robert Shaw, Harold Gould, Ray Walston and Eileen Brennan. As fun as it was, it’s not a film that I’d eagerly revisit any time soon. It’s no Exorcist or American Graffiti, that’s for sure.
poster_tarnishedangelsThe Tarnished Angels (1957). Tawdry but fascinating Douglas Sirk melodrama which re-teams the main actors from the better-known (but not as enjoyable) Written on the Wind. Based on a William Faulkner story, this film tracks a trio of Depression era barnstorming pilots. Manly Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone are unhappily married, with a child that Malone may or may not have had with their haggard mechanic (Jack Carson). Things get stirred up when Malone falls for roving reporter Rock Hudson. Since I found Written on the Wind the campiest and dumbest of Sirk’s movies, I arrived at this one with trepidation. This one also has camp to spare, but at least the setting and story are more involving and there are some good-to-decent performances amongst the hokum. Sirk adds a lot of his unique touches to this film, including his usual mirror images and having extras appear wearing odd, creepy masks. Touches like that add to the film’s strange voyeuristic vibe, even if the central theme was more satisfyingly explored in later stuff like They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?. Malone’s va-va-voom bullet bras and come-hither hairstyle are far from ’30s, however. The barnstorming scenes themselves, with aircraft dangerously maneuvering around pylons, are very well done. Rock Hudson’s climactic speech, however passionately played by the actor, is a histrionic letdown. On the Sirk-O-Meter, this lies at the same level as Magnificent Obsession but well below All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life.
Wings for the Eagle (1942). Rather cruddy wartime propaganda-cum-domestic melodrama played on Ann Sheridan day during TCM’s Summer Under the Stars (check out their beautiful site, by the way). Sheridan, Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan headline as star-crossed lovers who are also vying for jobs at the Lockheed aircraft plant in Burbank, California. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this film are the scenes actually filmed at Lockheed with workers furiously aiming to build as many bombers as possible. Those shots are fascinating, but in between we must suffer through the most hokey and predictable plot known to man. The film is directed by Lloyd Bacon in a shrill way with the actors all speaking a decibel or two louder than normal, undoubtedly trying to compete with the movie’s bombastic score. Normally I like all three lead actors, but the characters they play here are so annoying you wouldn’t want to spend five minutes with them, much less 90 minutes. The supporting cast is generally filled with predictable stock types, the exception being a pint-sized worker played with gusto by Billy Gilbert (cruelly billed as “Midget” in the credits). This movie may have been onto something had it starred Gilbert instead of Sheridan et al.

Muscle Bunnies

Saturday, August 21st, 2010

Not surprisingly, I was having a real hard time coming up with an idea for this week’s Two Bunnies & A Duck cartoon. Instead of going through the mind-melting tedium of coloring yet another comic, I decided to stick Harold and Barney (and their star-nosed pal Larry) into one of those cheesy vintage magazine ads that involve cartoon panels. Leafing through a 1949 issue of Popular Mechanics, I found the perfect ad!

bunnies64

Excellent timing, since we recently watched the documentary Bigger, Stronger Faster (about one guy’s conflicted relationship with steroids and muscle building). The cartoon sans bunnies:

bunnies64_ad

She’s Hot, She’s Sexy, She’s Dead

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

Today’s video is the opening of CBS’s tribute to their recently deceased comedy queen, Lucille Ball, broadcast April 26, 1989. I may have watched this when it originally aired. Lucy’s death was a huge deal that year, garnering the kind of media coverage usually reserved for world leaders and royalty.

On a related note, of late we’ve been watching a lot of I Love Lucy‘s third season DVD set (a gift for Christopher’s birthday). This was the first season after Little Ricky was born. Although it contains a lot of hilarious episodes, the darn baby gets dragged out all the time and it stops the comedy dead in its tracks. Lucy and Desi Arnaz must have realized what negative impact Little Ricky had, since the following season they bounced back with a baby-free trip to Hollywood. I do believe the show hit its peak during seasons four (Hollywood) and five (European trip).

More of CBS’ Lucille Ball memorial tribute: Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.