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Weekly Mishmash: July 25-31

book_americanmadeAmerican-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work by Nick Taylor. The Works Progress Administration program (1933-43) was such a unique endeavor and a fantastic example of American government pulling together to help its citizens. Finishing up Nick Taylor’s exhaustive history, I was sadly struck by how something so big and comprehensive could never be attempted again; the Obama administration has accomplished a few infrastructure building projects that are vaguely WPAish, but they’re nothing compared with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s sweeping reforms to get all unemployed Americans working towards recovery. Taylor’s history tracks the development of the WPA all the way back to the 1929 stock market crash, its introduction and setbacks (particularly with the arts and theater programs), criticisms, success stories, and finally the program’s quiet dissolving amidst World War II home front efforts in 1943. It’s a dense and somewhat dry read, a newspaper-like chronicle populated with a constantly shifting cast of characters (only FDR, his longtime WPA director Harry Hopkins, and fiery theater program head Hallie Flanagan stood out). I enjoyed reading it, however, mostly because it contained lots of details about the program that I never knew. One aspect about the WPA that Taylor brings to light is the fact that it was constantly challenged by Republicans. The opposition even went to such hysterical extremes that many believed the program was hatched by Communists, intending to turn the country into the United States of Russia. The more things change, the more they stay the same, eh?
A Cry in the Dark (1988). a.k.a the “dingo ate my baby!” movie. This was actually a potently arresting film about how gossip, innuendo and media imagery can royally screw up the facts. Meryl Streep and Sam Neill play a real-life Australian couple whose baby goes missing on a camping trip. The child’s body is never recovered, and the way the quirky, deeply religious couple deals with the tragedy is put under such public scrutiny that Streep eventually goes on trial for murder. This was such a stunningly well-made movie, not just for Streep’s chameleon-like performance but for Sam Neill as well. The film puts the viewer in another time and place (dig Meryl’s muumuus!), all the while addressing still relevant issues about media coerciveness and human gullibility. For all I know Streep’s abrasive but sympathetic Lindy Chamberlain might have no bearing on the real woman she played, but I was blown away by her and the film’s message.
Lions for Lambs (2007). A DVD that Christopher bought in a local retailer’s “3 for $10” sale (this was the “full screen” version, so basically a quarter of the picture was chopped off). I vaguely remember this as part of the wave of series Gulf War films that flopped at the box office. It’s actually a very well made movie, expertly crafted by Robert Redford, who also stars along with Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep. I liked the angle of telling three stories that are happening simultaneously in California, Washington D.C. and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, Redford’s message is flamingly liberal and delivered in a heavy-handed “preaching to the choir” way. Redford’s performance as a jaded professor ironically fares the worst amongst a cast that seems disappointingly flat. On the plus side, Michael Peña and Derek Luke deliver some good acting as a pair of students turned soldiers.
Moving Midway (2007) and Young@Heart (2007). A good week for documentaries. We caught Moving Midway on the Netflix “Watch Instantly” function via our Nintendo Wii. It’s a moderately interesting, somewhat blandly produced look at Southern imagery and tradition as a palatial North Carolina estate (belonging to the director’s family) is painstakingly moved to escape encroaching suburbia. It’s thought provoking the way it’s gradually revealed that the family’s lineage contains white and African-American blood. Although the execution leaves something to be desired, the film certainly assembles an affable (and talkative) group of people to be around. I hate to sound stereotypical, but those Southern folk sure are nice. Young@Heart is another charmer, about a group of singing retirees who perform offbeat renditions of tunes by the likes of Radiohead and Sonic Youth. Mostly the film takes its leisurely time getting to know the various participants (all as sweet as pie and about as grandparentlike as people could possibly get) as they deal with punishing rehearsals and the loss of fellow choir members. I admire the patience of choir director Bob Cilman, seen in a constant state of worry and/or exhaustion. The film has the strange effect of emphasizing the performers’ lack of skill (lots of strange atonal singing going on here), made worse with a few goofy music videos. Despite that, I was enthralled by the main message here of living life for all its worth. Bravo to the Young@Heart performers, wherever they are.
Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010). A tween Clash of the Titans, this muddled, CGI-heavy extravaganza seems to have “wannabe franchise” written all over it. A put-upon teen (Logan Lerman in Justin Beiber-style haircut) discovers that he’s half-God, descended from watery Poseidon, and his best friend (Brandon T. Jackson) is actually a satyr entrusted to protect him. The two journey to an X-Men style secret training camp for “special” kids, where they and another half-God (Alexandra Daddario) embark on a quest to find magic pearls and rescue the boy’s mortal ma (Catherine Keener, who shoulda known better). This movie actually had some potential, but much of it is squandered in the film’s rushed opening. Apparently this is based on a series of popular books. Having never heard of them, I can only divine that something went wrong during the production. The fact that it was overproduced was bad enough, but in the end the movie derails by never deciding if it wants to be a gee-whiz kiddie flick or a smutty and violent teen comedy. Chris Columbus also directed the first Harry Potter movie, coincidence or not?
Poor Little Rich Girl (1936). When it comes down to it, Shirley Temple’s saccharine vehicles were the first real “old movies” I ever saw. Our local independent TV station broadcast a Temple flick every weekend; I would make sure to watch (sometimes my mom joined in). Even the bad ones were fun; I suppose little Shirley was my gateway drug for everything you see here! Anyhow, I got reacquainted with Poor Little Rich Girl when it got a recent prime time spotlight on Turner Classic Movies. I can see why this is considered one of the quintessential Shirley flicks; she’s adorable and the direction and storyline are of such quality that even a Shirley-hater would enjoy it. Here she plays the title character, a pampered yet friendly and curious tyke who takes it upon herself to make her own “vacation” in the big, mean city. Instead of being raped and killed, little Shirley is adopted by a down on their luck song-and-dance duo (Jack Haley and Alice Faye). The couple absorb the creepily talented tyke into their act and eventually wind up on a radio show, one which happens to be sponsored by the soap company rivaling the one owned by — Shirley’s dad! Pure Depression-era hokum, for sure, but I loved it. Keep an eye out for the tap dance number at film’s climax, a thing so long and complex I can’t fathom Faye and Haley mastering it, much less the 7 year-old Temple.
The Truth About Youth (1930). Typically creaky early talkie melodrama which takes some unusual turns. Dewy fresh Loretta Young stars as a housekeeper’s daughter who is engaged to the master of the house’s loaded son, David Manners. Manners, however, has a thing for hosty-totsy singer Myrna Loy — a situation that becomes more complicated when the guy’s dad (Conway Tearle) attempts to hide the relationship from the innocent Young. Interesting film, not especially good with some wooden performances by Young and Manners (although his deer in the headlights look is perfect for this role). Conway Tearle was a big matinee idol of the silent era and it’s interesting to see him here as an older man, one who is still potent as we find out. Mostly the film’s appeal lies with Myrna Loy in one of her earlier, sexier roles. Her vitality enlivens this otherwise standard fare.

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