Monthly Archives: September 2010

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The Coffee Achievers

In honor of National Coffee Day, a series of TV ads Jim Henson did for Wilkins Coffee in the ’60s. In the spots, an embryonic version of Kermit and a Rowlf-voiced creature explain what could happen if we don’t drink up. Man, these are violent — and hilarious.

Weekly Mishmash: September 19-25

album_basiaBasia – Clear Horizon: The Best of Basia. Basia was another one of those singers I’ve always been curious about but never truly checked out, a big part of her attraction coming from being part of the ’80s “sophisti-pop” movement and all. The 1998 comp Clear Horizon was a good introduction, with tracks that span her first three albums from 1987-94, a pair of casually sung live tracks, a 1996 single (“Angels Blush” b/w “Waters Of March”) and two then-new cuts. She certainly was an odd duck, at least when first arriving on the scene. I can vividly remember hearing “Time And Tide” for the first time — it was the Fall of ’87 and I was driving to classes my first semester in college. Despite running late that morning, I felt compelled to sit in the car and hear the entire song — who the heck is this nasal-voiced lady with the beautiful song? The combo of brittle synth production and bossa nova stylings seemed pretty bizarre back then, but it’s actually worked in Basia’s favor over the years as her voice has mellowed and she (along with collaborator Danny White) has settled into a more adult, jazzy groove. The most blatantly Bossa Nova tunes in this set are my favorites, 1994′s sweetly endearing “Third Time Lucky” and her version of the Brazilian standard “Waters of March.” Stevie Wonder cover “Until You Come Back To Me”, a semi-hit from 1990, is the only standout omission — the track’s badly dated, quasi hip-hop percussion would have really stood out in these surroundings, however. As a supplement, I also downloaded Basia’s appearances on Peter White’s gorgeous “Just Another Day” and Spyro Gyra’s “Springtime Laughter.” Sophisticated pop, indeed.

Food, Inc. (2008). An eye-opener, even if much of the info in this feature length exposé of the nefarious U.S. food industry has already been covered in other documentaries. What sets the Oscar-nominated Food, Inc. apart from the rest is its super-slick presentation. From the clever opening credits, with the film’s personnel incorporated into faux food labels in a supermarket, we knew we were in for Michael Moore-esque muckraking infotainment. But, despite the flashiness, does it truly get its point across? I’d say yes. The filmmakers included powerful (and stomach churning) footage that even our jaded eyes blanched at. It also covers myriad subjects in an eloquent way. Most Americans still live in blissful ignorance when it comes to subjects like the FDA’s uselessness or the evil ways of Monsanto. More importantly, these are issues that affect us directly in our own physical well-being. It truly is a fascinating look at how lax government standards and the incentive of producing vast quantities of cheap food have led to an epidemic. The feel-good text running prior to the end credits was something of a cop out (I had a similar reaction to An Inconvenient Truth). Other than that, this is a powerful film that especially resonates during these mid-term election days.
Nana (2005). Meandering but ultimately worthwhile Japanese drama, adapted from the popular manga of the same name. This film concerns two young women with the same name who meet by chance on a snowbound rail car. Nana Osaki (Mika Nakashima) is the sulky lead singer of a goth/punk band, while the über perky Nana Komatsu (Aoi Miyazaki) is trying to find a job — and herself — so she can marry her high school sweetheart. Although the two initially seem to share little in common, their differences bring out the best in each other when the pair become roommates. This is an appealing film which takes a refreshingly dry, realistic approach to a plot which might read “bad sitcom” on first perusal. Although it sags in the middle and contains a few extraneous song performances, the appealing leads and a satisfying conclusion put it slightly into the “winner” category. Unlike say, the Death Note movies, this isn’t a cut-and-dried manga adaptation. That works in this film’s favor.
The September Issue (2008). This was another wicked good documentary, chronicling famously icy Vogue editor Anna Wintour as she prepares the brick-like September 2007 issue for publication. Wintour is presented as a haughty yet somehow sweet and endearing woman, one having little in common with the cartoonish editrix played by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada (although it’s amusing that the office layouts at Vogue and in Prada are virtually identical). She seems all business, coolly overseeing layouts and tossing out slaved-over photos like so many ashes from a cigarette. As always suspected, most of the real work is done by a phalanx of support staff. Cheif among whom is creative editor Grace Coddington, who gets almost as much screen time as Wintour. The filmmakers closely follow Coddington as she prepares an elaborate photo shoot of fashions inspired by Brassai’s images of Parisian women in the 1920s — in these scenes, the grind and occasional magic of magazine production comes alive. A flame haired former model, the straight-talking Coddington is a refreshing change from Wintour and editor at large André Leon Talley (who always seemed like a fakey schmoozer to me; this film didn’t change my opinion one iota). It’s interesting how she represents the old guard of fashion as pure visual spectacle, with no interest in the celebrity worshipping angle to fashion coverage that Wintour helped create. On the other hand, the process of how they managed to make the inelegant and sloppy actress Sienna Miller into a stunning cover girl was worth a feature length doc in itself. Great viewing.

Fun with Capitalism

Here’s something that might be a fond childhood memory for board members at AIG or Goldman Sachs — Going Places is a primer on good ‘ol American economics produced by John Sutherland Productions in 1948. The animation and music is appealing throughout, enough to make me want to check out more Sutherland cartoons from back then (p.s. appropos of nothing, I found this on YouTube while looking for the Heather Locklear sitcom of the same name). Cute ‘n perky!

Weekly Mishmash: September 12-18

still_funnyface

Funny Face (1957). I first saw Funny Face at the impressionable age of sixteen or so; it was literally one of the movies that made me fall in love with old movies. To a shy gay kid in Tempe, Arizona, the combined sight of elegant Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire, chi-chi fashions and Paris served as a window into another, nicer world. It is the kind of film that one stops to check out if it’s on somewhere, revisiting it occasionally like a warm old friend. It must have been a sign, therefore, when the DVD for my old friend popped up in the bargain bins at Ross, Dress for Less™. At the very least I could check it out again to see if it still holds up. My feelings were summed up in a tweet: “S’wonderful, but Audrey Hepburn is something of an asshat in that movie, huh?” It’s true. Hepburn is still utterly adorable as a mousy bookstore clerk turned famous model, but her character does the most obnoxious things from beginning to end. First, after reluctantly agreeing to accompany Astaire’s photographer and Kay Thompson’s magazine editor to Paris, she forgets her very first modeling appointment. Then she ruins her debut press conference by arguing with Astaire (for whom she fell with improbable rapidity) over some silly issue. She’s uppity and pretentious throughout, climaxing with the scene where she bolts a triumphant fashion show to track down Astaire. That kind of behavior is simply inexcusable — especially when it relates to her being smitten with the appealing yet old Astaire — and yet I still love this movie. Maybe it’s director Stanley Donen’s light and airy, never studio-bound touch, or Thompson’s fabulousness as the driven Maggie Prescott (“Think Pink” is a highlight). Perhaps this is the filmic equivalent of an old friend who has done some crap that one doesn’t approve of, yet one feels close to anyhow. Yeah, that’s it.
book_jpkpresentsJoseph P. Kennedy Presents: His Hollywood Years by Cari Beauchamp. A few years back, author Cari Beauchamp wrote an absorbing book called Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood. This was a great narrative about female empowerment in the growing industry of motion pictures, but it did have an intriguing minor player in Joseph P. Kennedy, better known as the patriarch of the Kennedy dynasty but here portrayed as an early mover and shaker and one of the few non-Jewish movie moguls. With this later book, Beauchamp focuses entirely on Kennedy and his thorny Hollywood career. Kennedy put another feather in his “self made man” cap as head of FBO, a company that made a tidy profit with cheapie Westerns in the 1920s. His most notorious effort of that era, however, was the doomed Queen Kelly, a costly Erich von Stroheim epic starring Kennedy’s mistress, Gloria Swanson. The tangled production of that film made for some of the more interesting chapters in this book, along with the areas that dealt with Kennedy’s complex home life (I didn’t know he had an institutionalized daughter, for one). The bulk of the book deals with Kennedy’s wheelings and dealings, which is where it falters. Unlike screenwriter Francis Marion, who was a genuinely appealing and interesting person, Kennedy comes across as, well, a big douchebag. His ambition was admirable, but the man seems like the ultimate glad-handler whose all consuming desire for success left a lot of ruined lives in his path (including that of Marion’s husband, cowboy actor Fred Thomson, who met a tragic fate when Kennedy froze him out of work). It is to Beauchamp’s credit that she can write about such a reprehensible person and make it work, but I was relieved to find him dead in the end.
The Legend of Bloody Mary (2008). Terribly acted, supposedly scary flick about a popular scary kid’s game. Like Candyman, this film uses the old apparition of Bloody Mary in the mirror as a starting point. In the film, a nerve-wracked college student is haunted by his sister’s disappearance when the two were kids. It seems she and her friends unwittingly resurrected the spirit of a vengeful 1800s spirit; it’s up to this guy and a priest/archeologist (!) to will the upset ghoulie back to the afterlife. This film appears to have been shot on a camcorder with community college acting class students. A sure sign of its classiness is the scene in which the priest consults a weathered 17th century document typeset in the computer age font ITC Blackadder. Christopher rented this with the hopes of seeing Glee‘s Cory Monteith in the nude; as it turns out, it’s the similarly titled Bloody Mary (2006) that contains Cory’s butt cheeks in a bloody death scene that likely cost three times as much as this opus.
album_janellearchJanelle Monae — The ArchAndroid. Still a fantastic album. Mind-blowing, actually. A second listen reveals the weird quasi-psychedelic touches in the album’s second half. It isn’t often that R&B/Hip Hop artists call to mind the likes of Donovan, but there it is in the trippy “Mushrooms & Roses.” When “Make the Bus” came on I thought “this sounds exactly like Of Montreal” — sure enough, this is a full-fledged collaboration with the funky indie group (apparently the two are currently touring together). Monae may not have the powerful pipes of a Beyoncé, but her vision and commitment is something to behold. The delightful psych-pop of “Wondaland” (which was included on a recent mix CD from a pal) is likely my favorite tune, and a good one to sample for the curious.
Retro Television Network (RTV). A nice surprise byproduct of cutting the satellite dish was finding a local feed for the fledgling Retro Television Network, an enterprise that aims to bring back the TV classics that TV Land so carelessly pissed away (along with its most loyal viewers) a few years back. A sampling of what we’ve seen in the past week: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Kraft Suspense Theater, The Jack Benny Show, Emergency, Marcus Welby M.D., It Takes A Thief, Run for Your Life, The Rifleman, Peter Gunn. Much of RTV’s lineup consists of hour long ’60s-’70s vintage drama and action series (many produced by Universal Studios). Sure, a lot of it is slow-paced and cheesy, but I loves me some good cheese. Behold: a 1970 episode of Marcus Welby M.D. with guest star Michele Lee as a hypochondriac spoiled rich girl who lived in a house with the ugliest avocado green and yellow living room. I dig it. Our DVR is going to be busy with this channel, which is much more than we can say for 99% of DirecTV’s offerings.

The Dangers of Having YouTube on the TiVo

After two weeks of trial and error, we have finally set up our new TiVo Premiere and digital antenna. What a relief. We can now record network programs in super sharp widescren (nice, even if the super-crisp, pixelated edges take some getting used to). We can also get Netflix streamed content and YouTube via the device. YouTube looks crappy as usual, but having it on the big screen gives us the patience to sit through longer stuff. Like 1950s TV shows, f’rinstance. We saw Burns and Allen this week, along with one episode of Mr. Adams & Eve, the Ida Lupino/Howard Duff sitcom which ran on CBS in 1957-58. Lupino and Duff were both good performers, but lowbrow comedy wasn’t exactly their forte — they’re no Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, that’s for sure. The two play married actors, like in real life, with much of the action taking place at the movie studio where they work. The one episode on YouTube, however, revolves around a domestic situation involving their characters’ mothers:

This was a frankly mediocre show, but it makes me excited to check out more old TV shows on YouTube. Any ideas? I also watched the pilot episode of Julie Andrews’ 1992 sitcom flop Julie, but the less said about that the better.

The ArchAndroid Sheds a Tear

I just downloaded The ArchAndroid from genre-defying (and hyped to the gills) artist Janelle Monáe. This concept album constitutes parts two and three of an epic story arc somehow involving oppressed yet sexy robots in the year 2719; one can’t fault the woman for being ambitious. While I don’t immediately get the concept, the album is a wildly inventive and eclectic suite. The project is anchored by clearly defined melodies and Monáe’s skilled, unadorned voice — thankfully she’s not buried under Auto Tune like other current divas (cough, Rihanna, cough). The music seems inspired by anything and everything yet somehow winds up being a cohesive whole; check the PopMatters review and comments to see her compared with everything from David Bowie to Vanessa Williams. The anthem-like “Cold War” with its touch of “Hey Ya” vibes (video below) is a highlight. Just the latest thing or a talent to be reckoned with?