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Weekly Mishmash: August 22-28

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.

2 Thoughts on “Weekly Mishmash: August 22-28

  1. Cristiane on August 30, 2010 at 6:02 pm said:

    I keep thinking, “Hollywood, you’re not going to make Sam Worthington happen.” He’s just…bland. Not a terrible actor, just boring.

    I rewatched The Merry Widow myself, and had forgotten how long it is until the actual plot of the operetta kicks in. I have to say I like the Lubitsch version better, although I do agree that Mae is pretty amazing, in a terrifying kind of way. Actually, if you were going to watch any of the John Gilbert TCM movies, I would have recommended Downstairs (1932), a very frisky pre-Code (Gilbert wrote the story). It’s very entertaining, with a terrific performance by Gilbert. it’s too bad that by the time it came out, his career was in ruins.

  2. I did see Downstairs on TCM a few years ago (Jan. ’09 to be exact) and you’re right, it is a pretty terrific Pre-Code corker.

    Mae Murray looks a lot like Gloria Swanson as a blonde – mesmerizing!

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