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Monthly Archives: August 2010

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Weekly Mishmash: August 8-14

The Body Snatcher (1945) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943). Have you ever shopped at the retail dumping ground Big Lots!? One of my pleasures of the past year is finding out about their DVD section. We’ve gotten a lot of old movies and TV shows there — cheap! My latest find is this Val Lewton double bill on a single DVD for only three bucks. Re-watching them this week reveals that these are excellent b-movies, atmospheric and amazingly effective for such low budget ventures. All in all, the only fault I could find in both is their casting of bland leading men (James Ellison in Zombie and Russell Wade in Body Snatcher). The Body Snatcher is the better known of the two, thanks to Boris Karloff’s chilling performance as a 19th century corpse wrangler for a doctor (Henry Daniell, also good) who takes his job a wee bit too seriously. Horror icon Bela Lugosi is also in the cast, but he has a nothing role and doesn’t do much with what little screen time he has. Despite the flaws, the film has all the making of a classic chiller. True, some scenes are rather pat and unnecessary, but it does have atmosphere to spare and I was unprepared by the outright creepiness of the climax. I Walked with a Zombie is one of those special films that I have a long history with, having first heard of it via Danny Peary’s first Cult Movies volume from the early ’80s (anybody else own this unsung book?). When finally viewed on American Movie Classics channel, I fell in love. Revisiting it now, the film’s flaws become more apparent but it’s never lost its creepy luster. One of the highlights is Frances Dee’s subtle performance. She strikes the proper mix of curiosity and strength as a nurse who is shipped to a mysterious island to care for a rich man’s wife (who seems gripped by a zombie-like spell executed by the locals). Tom Conway as the husband is pretty good, but the film belongs to Dee and perhaps the seven-foot tall zombie whose presence says a lot for a guy who never utters a word. The photography in this film is magnificent. Jaw-dropping. This was directed by Jacques Tournier, who mined similar atmospheric territory in later stuff like Out of the Past. What Tournier and Lewton did on a limited budget ought to be studied by today’s filmmakers.
book_dustyDusty by Lucy O’Brien. For being such a well-regarded singer, there are actually few books written about the life and music of Dusty Springfield. With her biography Dusty, British music journalist Lucy O’Brien does an excellent job of tracking the peaks and valleys of the beehived diva’s incredible career. As a matter of fact, a more appropriate title for this book would also belong to one of Dusty’s albums — See All Her Faces. One of the great contradictions about Dusty is that she never truly reconciled her bejeweled and fabulous image as a white lady who could sing black with her inner Mary Catherine O’Brien, the insecure, secretly lesbian little cockney girl. It’s kind of a recurring theme throughout her career, and it’s to O’Brien’s credit that in addition to intricately covering the recording sessions of her albums that these white/black, gay/straight, image/reality themes are a constant. Even though it’s written in a straightforward style with a few errors, O’Brien writes with great detail, illuminating every phase of Dusty’s career with liberal interview quotes. It’s a nifty biography which covers a lot of stuff I previously knew little of (especially her “lost” years in the mid-’70s when she became a reclusive party gal in L.A.). The book also contains a nice discography collecting all her 1959-99 recordings.
Four Jills in a Jeep (1943). Pleasant WWII fluff, I rented this mostly because it was a late-period vehicle for Kay Francis (whom I find fascinating). This was based on the true story of Francis joining Carole Landis, Mitzi Mayfair and Martha Raye as they entertain troops overseas for the U.S.O. Alas, whatever promise the film has for a realistic portrayal of life on the front is tossed in favor of forgettable numbers starring guest Fox contractees Alice Faye, Betty Grable and Carmen Miranda. As for the main quartet of ladies, it’s a mixed bag. Martha Raye was always an obnoxious delight, even if she was getting somewhat cartoonish at this point (the denture commercials were still decades away). The obscure Mitzi Mayfair was toothy and bland, with a double-jointed dancing shtick that verges on circus sideshow weirdness. Smart, blonde Carole Landis was a surprise, earthy and completely radiant in a timeless way (unfortunately the actress committed suicide in 1948, cruelly cutting short what must have been a promising life). Kay Francis ably plays the group’s den mother with her usual restrained elegance. The scene in which she gets on the floor and scrubs away was the film’s only nod to the hardship these women must have endured. Interestingly, the making-of featurette on this DVD reveals that Francis unsuccessfully flirted with Landis during the ladies’ tour — oh, to be a fly on that wall.
album_goldfrappGoldfrapp — Head First. I don’t delve into new music too often, but as soon as I heard the samples of the dreamy ’80s influenced soundscapes on Goldfrapp’s Head First, I had to download the entire thing. It’s seems as if Goldfrapp (whom I’ve heard only sporadically prior to this) is mining parts of the ’80s that might seem cheesy or unhip. The starting point might be the Xanadu soundtrack, both the Olivia Newton John and Electric Light Orchestra sides, perhaps the instrumental break in Air Supply’s “Lost in Love,” too, with bits of Princely funk and experimental synth lines thrown in. Although on paper it sounds like overkill, the album itself is suprisingly consistent and pleasureable with Alison Goldfrapp’s breathy voice at its center. First single “Rocket” is actually one of the weaker tunes, with “Alive” and the gentle title track being the peaks and “I Wanna Life” standing out as the most authentically ’80 sounding tune (picture something off Steve Winwood’s Arc of a Diver album fronted by Berlin’s Teri Nunn). Metaphorically speaking, this album is akin to witnessing Kim Carnes and Laura Branigan getting it on atop a fluffy cloud with a bunch of drooling Care Bears watching — filthy yet fun!
Road to Utopia (1946). Having never seen a Hope/Crosby/Lamour movie, I jumped at the chance to DVR one when Turner Classic Movies played a marathon of “Road” movies during their Summer Under the Stars Bob Hope tribute. Since Utopia seems to be the best regarded of the series, I picked this wintry adventure. Hope and Bing Crosby play 1890s vaudevillians who come into possession of a valuable map and inevitably get caught up with saloon belle Dorothy Lamour in the Alaskan gold rush. Having (unfairly) written off both Hope and Crosby as impossibly smug actors, I was surprised at how appealing they both are here. The duo’s comfort with each other, and the impressive way they deliver their rapid-fire zingers contribute mightily to this film’s fun. There’s actually a lot of progressive stuff going on with a parade of sight gags, fourth wall breaking and self-referential humor (including Robert Benchley as the narrator who occasionally pops into the frame to opine on the proceedings). I also enjoyed the songs by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke. The duo must have banged out something like “Personality” in a single afternoon, but the tune’s cleverness (and Lamour’s fetching performance) are a true delight:

We’re Not Married (1952). Inconsequential comedy in which several couples find out that their marriages by a frazzled old Justice of the Peace (Victor Moore) were not completely legit. The less said about this, the better, but at least the film had a glimmer of hope in the opening segment with Ginger Rogers and Fred Allen as a pair who fraudulently play a happily married couple on a radio program. The two host a cheery breakfast program which is actually nothing but gratuitous product placements, a concept which sounds promising but ends up somewhat flat and dull in execution. Come to think of it, I had a similar reaction to the rest of the film, in which several promising actors (Marilyn Monroe, Eve Arden and Paul Douglas among them) are basically wasted.

Paint Chips Ahoy

How often do you see a TV commercial that truly captures your eyes with beauty and subtlety? The Sherwin Williams campaign with animated paint chips does that for me. These play frequently on The Weather Channel; every time they come on, I sit and stare — they’re almost hypnotic. Wish I could say the same thing for other W.C. advertisers such as Newsmax or Crazy Critters.

Elegy for Chris Dedrick

I head today that Chris Dedrick, main creative force behind influential “sunshine pop” band The Free Design, died after battling cancer. That’s too sad. I hope he’s in a better place now. No one could write about kites, bubbles, umbrellas and pure unfettered joy like Dedrick.

Glorious Cinemascope and Stereophonic Sound

My spouse has written a cogent article on his weblog about Hollywood’s current obsession with 3D. Like color and wide screen, it’s all a matter of “been there, done that.”

On a related note, this image came off a vintage 1930 or so postcard folder of movie star homes which C. just bought. I spy Norma Shearer, Harold Lloyd, Will Rogers, Winnie Lightner, Joe E. Brown, Douglas Fairbanks and John Barrymore amongst the faces. See any others?

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Weekly Mishmash: August 1-7

dvd_artofthestealThe Art of the Steal (2009). Clearly biased but nevertheless enthralling documentary tracking one of the most valuable art collections on earth. The film’s first half details Albert Barnes, a Pennsylvania doctor who made a fortune developing an infant eye drop solution, and his efforts to accumulate an impressive collection of Post-Impressionist and early Modern art. The class-averse, philanthropic Barnes set up his collection as an educational resource for art students, and it stayed that way until Barnes unexpectedly died in the ’50s. Barnes’ will specified that the collection stay intact and preserved in the same building with the paintings arranged in a quirky yet beautiful, Salon-style manner on the walls. In the years that follow, the struggle between good intentions and exploitation magnify as the art’s value balloons. By the time the collection falls into the hands of a small black college in 1988, the kind of people Barnes despised (society types and politicians) are circling like vultures; what follows is a power play that would do Gordon Gekko proud. An interesting if not too balanced watch, this proves with depressing finality that money and power trumps art and education every time. It was interesting, however, that I could see both sides of the coin and with all the kerfuffle nobody emerges as a true villain (except perhaps the conservative Philadelphia newspaper magnate who ironically specified in his will that his own art collection stay intact).
The Face of Another (1966). Talky, visually arresting Japanese thriller about a man (Tatsuya Nakadai) who is given a chance to wear a lifelike mask to disguise his horribly disfigured face. This plot device is a springboard for director Hiroshi Teshigahara to explore levels of psychological and personal control, somehow encompassing the subplot of a young woman who is similarly disfigured (as a result of an atom bomb blast, we infer). Although the film is slow paced and obtuse, the odd art direction and wild settings (including a somewhat tasteless German-themed watering hole) kept me intrigued. Teshigahara, who also helmed the better-regarded Woman in the Dunes, throws around every sort of cinematic trick here, making this a slapdash but agreeably weird and atmospheric affair. Actor Nakadai is perfectly chilling in a role that comes off as Dr. Frankenstein and his own monster rolled into one. Honestly, much of the film’s symbolism went past me, but the meaning of many of the images are nicely pointed out in the video essay included as an extra on Criterion’s DVD.

Heidi (1937). Beloved children’s classic rejiggered as high style Shirley Temple vehicle. Since I read Johanna Spyri’s Heidi earlier this year, it’s interesting to note how many liberties the filmmakers took. The book is a love letter to the Swiss countryside and the pious simplicity of its people, as epitomized by the cheery title character; Heidi the film is Hollywood adventure with what was a minor chapter in the book (in which Heidi stays with a rich family) taking up the bulk of the second half. The movie plays fast and loose as a literary adaptation, and Temple is a bit too cloying for this part, but it was entertaining nonetheless. I could even accept the oddly shoehorned musical number in which Temple plays a clog wearing Dutch girl and bewigged French royalty. Shirley and her dimples dominate here, but special mention should be made of actress Mary Nash, who plays Heidi’s evil governess. Temple and Nash were also memorably teamed in The Little Princess, a slightly better literary adaptation from a few years later.
album_moremonkeesThe Monkees — More of the Monkees. My second helping of Monkeemania from eMusic. This second album contains the group’s biggest hit, the utterly fabulous “I’m A Believer,” which ultimately made it the biggest selling LP of 1967. Musically it’s something of a grab bag, with a haphazard array of gritty garage rock, novelty numbers and Brill Building pop vying for attention. Although many Monkees fans don’t favor the more commercial, bubblegum sounding music heard here, I kinda dig it. It’s fascinating to hear what Neil Diamond, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Jeff Barry et al were coming up with at this point as the Girl Group and Doo Wop/R&B genres were falling to the wayside. Although I’ve read that Michael Nesmith, Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork weren’t too happy with their lack of input on this album, it sure doesn’t show amongst the LP’s generally upbeat if scattered tracks. The album contains the rocking “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” and “Mary, Mary,” the horrid “Your Auntie Grizelda,” and Jones’ “The Day We Fall In Love,” a piece of mush that only Marcia Brady could possibly love. An interesting snapshot of 1967 pop; I supplemented this album with “Apples, Peaches, Bananas and Pears,” a bubblegumeriffic track that the band recorded at the time but didn’t see fit to release until the ’80s.
Silent Running (1972). Crunchy granola sci-fi with a conservationist message! This is an intriguing bit of pre-Star Wars, post-2001 cerebral sci fi, a film that attempts the excitement of the former and the cerebral tone of the latter without quite accomplishing either. The tale of a transport ship full of rare plants and animals being hijacked from returning to a battle-scarred Earth by environmentalist Bruce Dern is still relevant today. This despite it being told in a completely dated way with quaint special effects and a few earnest Joan Baez songs on the soundtrack. The film ultimately rides on Dern’s thin shoulders; I found him his usually flaky self at the beginning, but he grew on me as the film progressed and in the end I was touched by his plight. Poor Dewey.
Unfaithfully Yours (1948). Personal experience with the films of Preston Sturges tells me his stuff is either brilliant or crappy; Unfaithfully Yours is one of the crappy ones. The film follows short-tempered, jealous conductor Rex Harrison as he becomes aware that a detective trailed his beautiful wife (Linda Darnell) who may be having an affair. Rehearsing with his orchestra, Harrison becomes consumed by several “what if” scenarios, each one more outlandish than the last. While some of the dialogue had the sparkle of earlier Sturges films, I absolutely hated the main character. The screechy Harrison (whom I never really enjoyed) does zero to make this man relatable or sympathetic. The film reaches an absolute low point with an interminable slapstick sequence in which Harrison tries (and fails) to execute one of his schemes. For a supposed light comedy, this film contains many uncomfortably bleak scenes — including one in which Harrison attempts to get Darnell and her alleged lover to join him in a round of Russian Roulette. Yuck. For peak Sturges, stick with Sullivan’s Travels or The Palm Beach Story.

New at LitKids – Heidi

Our favorite literary Swiss Miss, Heidi, makes her debut at LitKids this week. My first version of Heidi had her positioned over the seam where the two book pages overlap, which caused bleeding problems with the silk screening. That didn’t work out, so instead I moved the girl over to the right and put one of her pet goats (which figure prominently in the book) on the left. Cute!

This print is the last of the six designs I worked on before launching LitKids in April. Which character should I do next? So many possibilities, and it doesn’t even have to be a kid. Here’s the direct link to get a Heidi print.

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