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Monthly Archives: September 2010

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Weekly Mishmash: September 5-11

Hustle & Flow (2005). Stuck in a rut, a Memphis pimp (Terrence Howard) enlists the help of family and friends to cut his own Hip-Hop records. Despite Howard’s Oscar nom and a lot of critical acclaim, I’ve avoided this one for a long time. Perhaps I believed it would be grungy and violent, but the film actually wound up very absorbing, well-made and even somewhat sweet. The film rambles a bit too much in the first half, including a ludicrous scene in which the Oscar winning song “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp” goes from lyrics scrawled on a notepad to completed song in about five minutes. Whatever realism that scene lacks is made up for the winning ways in which the characters overcome the stereotypes their Southern, lower-class circumstances have forced them into. Terrence Howard is excellent, but I also enjoyed Anthony Anderson and DJ Qualls as the men employed to help him cut his music. The film also has a wealth of great female roles; best of the bunch is Taryn Manning as the sole remaining working “ho” in Howard’s employ. Her character is just as desperate to escape a dead end life as Howard’s, and the couple of scenes she has to express that frustration are touchingly delivered.
Pattern for Smartness (1948). A selection from Kino’s How To Be A Woman set of vintage educational shorts, this valuable effort came courtesy of the Simplicity pattern company. Will Betty use her slammin’ sewing skills to take Johnny’s basketball team out of the red? Watch and learn!

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2007). A wonderful choice from my fab spouse, Christopher. From the title I was expecting a dry, documentary like account of some dead lady from World War II; in reality it’s a powerful and beautifully acted portrait of a woman who was the very model of standing up for one’s own convictions. Sophie Scholl was a student who took part in the White Rose underground anti-Fascist movement in WWII Germany. While secretly distributing leaflets with her brother, Hans, and another classmate, she was arrested, interrogated and tried by the SS in a humiliating display meant to defer other subversives. This is an absorbing film with an intense performance by actress Julia Jentsch as Sophie. The film sags a bit during the interrogation scenes, with Jentsch and fellow actor Gerald Alexander Held in a quiet, overplayed sparring that verges into My Nazi Interrogation with André territory. It rebounds beautifully, however, in the scenes following with Scholl touchingly discussing her personal life with a fellow prisoner (played by Johanna Gastdorf, also good). Great film. I must also mention actor Fabian Hinrichs as Sophie’s brother Hans — no relation, but how could someone with that rocking name not be great?


Stallion Road (1947). A big week in the homestead, as we sadly got rid of Turner Classic Movies. I’ll always love TCM, but when we exchanged our wallet-sucking DirecTV satellite service for a streamlined TiVo that picks up local HD channels and streamed Netflix, it was a no-brainer. We will definitely get our classic movie fix via DVDs and other sources, but in the meantime I needed some decent TCM fare to close out (something better than the wretched Jeanne Eagels, at least). This genial horsey drama looked like an intriguing enough choice. Starring Ronald Reagan, Alexis Smith and Zachary Scott, this was standard Warner Bros. melodrama of its time — typical, but professionally done and watchable. Set in contemporary California ranch land, this film goes into familiar soapy territory with Smith as the confident lady rancher who has both studly vet Reagan and visiting novelist Scott wanting to get into her jodhpurs. In the meantime we get treated to a horse jumping competition, an improbable restaurant brawl and an anthrax scare. Reagan is his usual boring self (“white bread” are the two most apt words for the man), but I enjoyed Smith and it was great to see Scott cast as something besides a loathsome cad. A nice farewell to TCM, which really needs to get into the 21st century and start a paid, Netflix-like streaming service. I’d do that in a heartbeat!
Towelhead (2007). I had high hopes for this provocative drama scripted and directed by Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball — this despite the film getting mixed to bad reviews when it came out. Based on Alicia Erian’s autobiographical novel, this film concerns a 13 year old Lebanese-American girl (Summer Bishil, very good in a demanding role) who is blossoming sexually while dealing with quarreling, recently divorced parents, ignorant classmates, and a predatory next door neighbor played by Aaron Eckhart. Topping it all off is the fact that it takes place in the 1990-91 buildup to the first Gulf War — in suburban Texas! This is a well intentioned and nicely produced film with notable work by Bishil, Eckhart and Peter Macdissi (memorable as Claire’s slimy art professor in Six Feet Under) as Bishil’s menacing dad. I also really dug the film’s production design, which seems to capture the mundanities of early ’90s suburbia in a subtle and effective way (hair scrunchies, bulky sweaters, etc.). The main problem I had, and this is a huge one, was the film’s lack of sympathetic characters. Bishil strikes a proper numbed out note, but she doesn’t have enough depth to carry the more despicable people in support. It makes the squeamish nature of the sex scenes more uncomfortable than they ought to be. While I don’t have a problem with the subject matter (in fact, teen sexuality isn’t explored enough in a mature way — on film or otherwise), the abhorrent characters make the whole thing seem more exploitative than provocative. It really says something that when Toni Collette’s hippie-ish neighbor shows up to aid Bishil, she comes across like a shrill busybody. An object lesson in “not the intended message” filmmaking.

It’s Pollyanna at LitKids

Yesterday I put the finishing touches on a new LitKids print — Pollyanna! This one came out pretty great. I love the design, the colors, the quality of the book pages. True, some of her balloon string didn’t come through the silk screen, but touches like that give these prints a nice handmade quality. A Pollyanna is a rather disparaging term for someone who is blindly optimistic, but it can be a positive thing, too. This is a piece for those who aren’t afraid to call themselves a Pollyanna.





Friday Night Lights

Today’s video: a circa 1991 promo for 100% Weird on the TNT network. I remember staying home Friday nights and watching this; there was also MonsterVision hosted by Joe Bob Briggs (which may have replaced 100% Weird). At that time Ted Turner utilized TNT to air his recently purchased MGM/Warner Bros. film library. This was an interesting period for TNT, when they’d broadcast an NBA game followed by some forgotten Jimmy Cagney flick with nary a blink. I remember watching old movies that had no chance ever appearing on VHS alongside ancient short subjects (“Who Stole Norma Shearer’s Jewels?”) and cartoons back then and really digging it. In 1994, the film library got their own vehicle with Turner Classic Movies. And the rest is history.

While we’re at it, I’m also going to share an article on good old TNT written by Tom Gallagher for Details magazine, also circa 1991 (click image for larger version). “As Noël Coward said, sort of, it’s extraordinary how potent cheap movies can be.” — couldn’t have stated it better myself!

Curtain Call

About 10 years ago, I found these adorable fruit and vegetable print curtains at a thrift store. Got them home and found they were the perfect size for our kitchen window. As you can see from the photos below, they’re still cute but the colors have faded and the fabric has become threadbare. We’d like to replace them, but we’re having the hardest time trying to find something appropriate. We like retro fabric designers like Alexander Girard, Lucienne Day, Vera, Harwood Steiger — or even Charles Harper, if you applied his print style to cloth. The only limitation is that it has to have some green, since our kitchen is that color. The curtains can be pre-made or just fabric. Any ideas?



Weekly Mishmash: August 29 – September 4

Candyman (1992). After seeing Virginia Madsen not quite channeling Marion Davies, I wanted to check her out in something else, so this creepy hit went on the Netflix instant watching queue. Despite its age, it’s actually quite a scary and impressive film. It starts off with Philip Glass’ foreboding score accompanying aerial shots of Chicago, leading one to believe we’re in for Koyaanisqatsi 2: Revenge of the Hopi. What follows is a fun and frantic opus based on the “Bloody Mary” legend that so taunted many a school child (who, me?). Madsen plays a college researcher whose study of urban legends leads her to investigate the legend of Candyman, a hook handed former slave allegedly still terrorizing the residents of a run-down apartment building unlucky enough to say his name into a mirror five times. Madsen makes for a strong, intelligent heroine and Tony Todd is a formidable slasher. It only gets cheesy near the end. Bar none, the best aspect of the film is the Philip Glass score. Apparently Glass believed he was working on an edgy indie, disowning his work once it was revealed as a mainstream scare flick. Strangely, the music is a good fit with the visuals; each one complements the others and makes the film as a whole much more effectively terrifying.
sheet_goodbyeloveGoodbye Love (1933). Another venture into public domain land via the household Comedy Kings 50 Movie Pack set. This was a breezy yet inconsequential RKO quickie with Charlie Ruggles as a butler who’s in trouble for missing alimony payments. When he is sent off to a beach resort by his employer (Sidney Blackmer), he impersonates a rich big game hunter and snags a conniving gold digger (Verree Teasdale). The scheme gets more complicated when greedy Teasdale arranges to wed Ruggles. This was pretty dull stuff, considerably enlivened by the two leads. Ruggles knew how to play perplexed better than anyone and the swanky Teasdale is always worth a watch, even in tripe like this.
Jeanne Eagels (1957). Speaking of tripe — I’ve been wanting to see this biopic for several years now. It stars Kim Novak as Jeanne Eagels, brilliant and mercurial Broadway actress whose hard living ways led to an early demise in 1929. Unfortunately, this cliché-ridden mess was a disappointment on every level, from the pacing (which never recovers from interminable early scenes with Novak and Jeff Chandler at a seedy carnival) to the acting. Everything is overstated and unsubtle, and the role was well beyond what Novak’s talents could offer at the time. I believe the film’s biggest mistake was that it came about at the wrong time. Had it been made circa 1947 with Bette Davis, it may have been a campy, overheated melodrama … or perhaps it may have made for a compelling and gritty ’70s drama with a Jane Fonda type playing Eagels. I award this one star out of five.
Kiss of the Spider Woman (1986). Another film I’ve been wanting to catch for years. Kiss of the Spider Woman stands as one of the early triumphs of indie filmmaking, anchored by a memorable turn by William Hurt as a gay prisoner coerced into wrangling secrets from cellmate Raoul Julia. This is certainly a well-acted and at times nicely mounted film. The importance of what it has to say never wavers, which might be why the film doesn’t quite hold up as well as other dramas of the era. While it has sound intentions to spare, generally it comes across like a pompous stage adaptation. The vague reasons for Hurt and Julia’s imprisonment are never adequately explained, the film-within-a-film segments with Sonia Braga as a shoulder-padded ’40s heroine were painfully self-conscious, and the finale seemed too pat and formulaic. Even worse, the supposedly shocking kiss between the two leads arrived with a thud. Hurt deserves a lot of credit for breathing life into his swishy character, but I couldn’t help but feel his Oscar was another example of liberal Hollywood patting its own back. It’s an excellent performance, however, in a deeply flawed film.
Married Life (2007). This was a good, meaty neo-Hitchcock domestic drama with Chris Cooper as an unhappily married man carrying on an affair with Rachel McAdams while trying to figure out a way to off his spouse, Patricia Clarkson. He confides his predicament to his best friend, Pierce Brosnan, all the while not realizing that Brosnan and McAdams are falling for each other. The film takes place in the late 1940s, with production design that is a feast for aficionados of that era. The look of the film is so nicely done, evocative of its time yet never overstated. The skilled Cooper and Clarkson are both reliably great; Brosnan and McAdams do well, too. The film has a few flaws (Brosnan’s narration chief among them), but on its own modest standards we both enjoyed this one a lot.
Elvis Presley — Elvis 75: Good Rockin’ Tonight. I’ve always been a casual fan of Elvis who lacked a decent, career-spanning collection of the man’s music. Since I had a lot of free credits at eMusic to spend, I decided to go for this comprehensive 100-track, four disc set released to celebrate his 75th birthday. Probably a two disc hits collection would have been okay for my needs, but I love the way this particular box was chosen with an even handed survey of 1955-77 music emphasizing quality over popularity (it even skips over a top ten hit, “The Wonder of You”). It opens with “My Happiness,” a charming 1953 recording made for his ma, then launches into eight tracks from the legendary Sun sessions. These raw early recordings reveal a man burning with talent and startlingly aware of every genre of the era (country, blues, nascent rock ‘n roll, even showtunes). The RCA stuff that followed is often criticized for being crass and shallow, but I dug those as well, both the hit and the buried treasures. For better or worse, he became a hip-swiveling icon almost immediately. Much of the late ’50s material was chosen to make him look dangerous, yet appealing for a mainstream audience. It tends to verge on self-parody, frankly, but I think Elvis approached stuff like “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” with tongue firmly planted in cheek and it’s a blast to hear it again. This set also picks through the gems of his oft-stinky Hollywood soundtracks with panache. Elvis’ ’68 comeback and its immediate aftermath form the highlights of the set, including my personal fave tune of his, 1970’s “Kentucky Rain.” The last quarter of the set basically covers his ’70s output, which is the least familiar period often for good reason — he tended toward lazy, country-inflected live cuts at this time. Despite some good, overlooked performances, it is the least essential part of the box. The m.i.a. “Wonder Of You” epitomizes the schmaltzy, white jumpsuitted Elvis phase so well (perhaps I ought to download that, too), but at least the box ends on a more positive and lively note with the 2002 remix of “A Little Less Conversation.” RCA seems to churn out new Elvis repackagings like sausages, but at the very least this is one of the more thoughtful (and tasty) ones.

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg (2009). Interesting, at times problematic doc on one of the 20th century’s most popular entertainers, now largely forgotten. Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg chronicles the life of Gertrude Berg, star and creator of the ethnic family sitcom The Goldbergs. Through ample clips and comments from colleagues and admirers, we gather that Berg was a true self-made media mogul. Berg’s creation Molly Goldberg was presented as the ultimate worldly wise, wry urban Jewish matriarch, a character that warmed the hearts of many Americans who otherwise wouldn’t know such a person. The fact that Berg was a savvy businesswoman whose private life differed greatly from the picture perfect family she wrote of is also amply discussed, although the filmmakers have an excessively fawning attitude toward their subject for it to have much impact. Between all the hyperbole and exaggeration (about her being a sitcom pioneer, etc.), Berg comes across as quite a lively and absorbing personality. I enjoyed learning a lot about her and her show. The Goldbergs became a blockbuster on the radio, but most of the exposure in this doc comes via clips from the TV incarnation which ran from 1949 to 1954. The series actually looks kind of stodgy and stagebound, which might explain why it’s never had the longevity of an I Love Lucy. I also liked the section on the blacklisting and eventual death of Berg’s onscreen husband, actor Philip Loeb. Beware, however: Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg suffers from an overabundance of out of context clips and too much obsequiousness. To which I say “oy vey.”

Forsaking All Others

Over the weekend, the spouse and I caught Married Life starring Chris Cooper, Pierce Brosnan and the wonderful Patricia Clarkson. While we both enjoyed this neo-Hitchcock period drama very much, I loved the opening credits sequence. This was created by the Venice, California based Prologue studio. Loverly: