Monthly Archives: October 2010

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Weekly Mishmash: October 24-30

Art & Copy (Independent Lens, PBS). Intriguing documentary on the advertising industry, exploring various successful campaigns from the “creativity first” revolution of the ’60s through the media saturated landscape of today. This was kind of neat to watch (especially the clips from memorable old commercials), but frustrating as well. It only proves what I’ve known from my limited dealings with ad agency types — they’re a bunch of douchebags with inflated opinions of themselves. Awkwardly using an average-Joe billboard erector as a framing device, the filmmakers interview an impressive array of ad directors as they tell stories of their best known campaigns (Just Do It, Got Milk?, etc.). The film also displays statistics about things like how much money is spent annually on ads, and how many ads the average American sees in a day. They are merely stats, however, and the main issues of why we live in such an ad-saturated society are never adequately discussed. Mostly we see famous ad people crowing about their own achievements, which has the unintended result of making them look like prima donnas whose mothers complimented them on their crayon scribbles one too many times. Interesting subject, frustrating film.
His Private Secretary (1933). Poverty row comedy about a cocky rich kid who charms a minister’s daughter. By all means this is a routine film, chintzy and statically directed with little room for creativity. Its only distinctiveness lies in a young and unknown John Wayne headlining as the playboy. Despite the strange casting, he is very appealing — as is actress Evelyn Knapp as his sweetheart. Might be worth a peek for Wayne fans; I started losing interest in the story about halfway through this already slight (60 minutes) movie.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). Inspired a rental after re-seeing the South Park episode in which Kyle, Stan and the other kids are traumatized after witnessing the rape of Indiana Jones by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. We both have to agree. What a load of overproduced, ludicrous crap this is. From the CGI gophers to the positioning of geeky Shia LeBouf as an action hero, this is one monumentally stupid decision after another. Not since Peter Jackson’s King Kong have I seen so much money thrown at the screen — and to what end? At least Kong had a solid story to fall back on, not so much this mishmash of aliens, Russian spies, and monumentally fake CGI set pieces. In its (tiny) defense, at least the film presents Harrison Ford/Indiana as a doddery old guy with some of the charm and appeal that made him an icon. I can get the comedy, but it’s used so often and so unsubtly (LeBouf swinging on vines, really?) that it throws off the tone of the entire film. The hyped return of Karen Allen’s Marion was a disappointment, with the character’s grinning la-di-da hippie disposition sharing little in common with the fiery Marion of old. Normally I love Cate Blanchett, but her villain has little gravity with a voice seemingly copied off Rocky and Bullwinkle‘s Natasha. The criticized “nuke the fridge” scene wasn’t so bad, but man oh man. What a crock.
poster_magobss35Magnificent Obsession (1935). Another film that I saw eons ago on the old American Movie Classics channel. I gave it another look after Criterion released it on DVD alongside Douglas Sirk’s better ’50s version. As far as soapy soaps go, this story is awfully preachy and doesn’t hold up nearly as well as the class/race dramas explored in Imitation of Life. It concerns newlywed Irene Dunne who returns from a cruise to find that her beloved surgeon husband has died of a heart attack. The machine that could have saved his life was used on a reckless young playboy (Robert Taylor) who tries to woo the nonplussed Dunne, then inadvertently causes her to go blind in an accident. In a flash, he becomes a Nobel prize winning brain surgeon for the sole reason of curing Dunne — under strict anonymity, of course. Only the best actors could make that hokum somewhat plausible; this version, although entertaining, fails on that level. I tend to like Irene Dunne better in comedic roles; here she has an extreme degree of haughtiness that even Norma Shearer couldn’t dream of attaining. Taylor is affable enough in the role that made him a ’30s matinee idol, but mostly I was distracted by his ginormous head and eye makeup. The characters’ behavior is also quite annoying; you might need an extra shoe to throw at the judgmental supporting characters played by Sara Haden and Betty Furness. Not much was changed for the ’53 remake with Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, but at least that film has director Douglas Sirk’s visual elan to recommend it. Not so for the original. Incidentally, actress Joyce Compton supposedly has a bit part as a nurse (according to her IMDb listing, anyhow). She is actually not in the film.
The Outside Man (1973). Gritty little ’70s actioner with an odd cast that includes Ann-Margret, Angie Dickinson, Roy Scheider and The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s lovable ditz, Georgia Engel. In a unique France-meets-U.S. scenario, Jean Louis Trintignant plays a contract assassin sent to kill a crime kingpin in sunny, decadent Los Angeles. Something goes awry, however, and instead Tintignant finds himself on the run from another killer (Scheider, quiet and menacing). He gets help from a blowsy friend of a friend (Ann-Margret), but when when the time comes to depart he can’t find himself leaving loose ends behind. This was a flawed but very interesting and watchable time capsule that reminded me in places of The Long Goodbye. As in Goodbye, we got a kick out of the varied ’70s L.A. locales and the sun-baked noir mood certainly comes into play in both. This film never quite jells, however, despite quirky touches like Engel’s daffy, publicity hungry housewife (with Jackie Earle Haley as her son, no less). Oddly enough, she’s the best thing in the movie!
The Thing Called Love (1993). Genial, somewhat routine romantic comedy about a group of young aspiring songwriters/performers trying to make sense of their careers and relationships in Nashville, Tennessee. This was directed by Peter Bogdonavitch, whose films tend to be either pretty good or horrible, with a cast that included River Phoenix in one of his final roles and Sandra Bullock shortly before she attained A-list status. Samantha Mathis is a decent enough lead, but she can’t sing (realistic at first, ludicrous for the finale) and doesn’t have the right “country” tone for the part. I could say the same for Phoenix, who comes across as sulky and not quite the magnetic, misunderstood soul the film makes him out to be. Ironically, it is Sandra Bullock who fares the best as a pretty wannabe country music star who, deep in her heart, knows she’s merely pageant contestant material. She has the sweet authenticity that the leads lack. Iffy casting aside, I found this a sweetly watchable film.

Ghost A Go-Go

Busy this week, but here’s a new, different and tough mid sixties drive-in theater clip:

Weekly Mishmash: October 17-23

George Benson — Give Me The Night. Downloaded this album along with an array of Mr. Benson’s hits from 1981-84. The Quincy Jones production Give Me The Night was Benson’s full fledged leap out of jazz guitar and into R&B stardom; the title track is one of those tunes that’s so distinct I recall the first time I heard it (in my mom’s car, going somewhere at night). The album has feet in both pop/R&B and jazz, with some tracks bringing on the funk like a sequel to Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall and others in a less commercial vein (his duet with Patti Austin on “Moody’s Mood,” for example). Burdened with a few too many lover-man ballads to be truly excellent, it’s still a good showcase Benson’s smooth voice and smoother guitar riffing. All in all, I actually prefer Benson’s pop stuff, but instrumentals “Off Broadway” and “Dinorah, Dinorah” are surprising highlights.
dvd_bugsbunnyBugs Bunny: Hare Extraordinaire (Looney Tunes Super Stars). A birthday gift from Christopher. Bugs Bunny: Hare Extraordinaire (along with companion Daffy Duck volume, Frustrated Fowl) represents Warner Home Video’s dip back into the Looney Tunes DVD game after the company announced it was ceasing the acclaimed Looney Tunes Golden Collection box sets. Unlike the grand Golden Collections, these sets contain a mere 15 cartoons each — all new to DVD but dating from the less than inspired 1950-64 period. Although it contains a few gems (Chuck Jones’ Lumber-Jack Rabbit was a sentimental fave), the blandness of Hare Extraordinaire is pretty familiar to anyone who noticed the quality of the Bugs discs in the Golden Collections going down with each successive volume. The DVD contains no commentaries or extras of any kind. Adding insult to injury is the fact that two thirds of the cartoons are presented in fake anamorphic widescreen, with the tops and bottoms of the picture lopped off. I’d definitely rather buy a Warner Archive set of scratched up Bosko cartoons than this shoddy product. Minor plus: nice cover design.
Children of a Lesser God (1986). William Hurt as an idealistic teacher at a small New England school for the deaf meets willful ex-student Marlee Matlin; Hurt attempts to teach Matlin how to speak while the two gradually become lovers. This was an interesting film; very well acted and not nearly as soapy as originally suspected. This film was adapted by director Randa Haines from Mark Medoff’s successful Broadway play; instead of feeling stagey, however, it nicely captures the atmosphere of a small town/workplace and its residents. Even the young deaf actors playing students were natural. I suppose Matlin’s Oscar was something of a P.C. gesture, but she’s startlingly good (especially playing pissed off, which comes often) and has a lot of screen presence. I was amused to see Linda Bove, best known as Linda the deaf lady on Sesame Street, in the cast. This film explores issues of the deaf community assimilating while retaining their own sense of specialness, a theme that’s even more resonant today with developments in cochleal implants, etc. It would be cool to see how the characters and situations would be handled in a contemporary setting.
The Small Back Room (1949). A minor Powell and Pressburger film, somewhat moribund and talky in spots but compelling nonetheless. In 1943 England, an embittered bomb diffusion expert (David Farrar) deals with alcoholism and a concerned girlfriend (Kathleen Byron) before being assigned to defuse a cutting edge bomb left on a pebbly beach. This is a low-key drama, at times nicely acted by the two stars of Black Narcissus. The alcohol angle seemed like a Lost Weekend ripoff to me, however, and other elements of the story didn’t have enough bite to truly keep us interested. The climax was well paced, however.
Temple Grandin (2010). Excellent movie on a woman of whom I’ve previously known very little (basically snippets of an NPR interview). Temple Grandin is a scientist and animal rights activist who overcame autism to develop innovative ways of immunizing and slaughtering cattle. The film chronicles Grandin’s life from childhood through her difficult college years and eventually making her mark in the male-centric cattle industry. Claire Danes as Grandin is nothing short of wonderful, and if you’d seen the two at the Emmy awards you’d notice that Danes’ somewhat mannered performance is actually a perfect mimicry of the real Grandin (which makes it all the more extraordinary). The film covers a lot of territory in a concise way, skillfully using special effects and overlaid animation to convey Grandin’s obsessive, detail oriented viewpoint. It’s an incredibly moving story, beautifully told. Danes has been getting most of the acclaim, but Julia Ormond, Catherine O’Hara and David Strathairn also contribute great work to this movie that needs to be seen. I’d even think that Ms. Grandin is one of the unsung heroes of our time.

Key Party

Remember Just Men!, the 1983 game show hosted by Betty White? I was surprised to find that somebody uploaded a complete episode of this on YouTube. Despite only lasting for 13 weeks on NBC, this show netted White the first game show host daytime Emmy awarded to a woman (deservedly so, if only for the way she constantly runs about the set). Gameplay consisted of two female contestants quizzing a panel of seven male celebs for a chance at… a NEW CAR! Okay, so it’s kind of a weird show with a salacious Dating Game-esque element, but it was cool to see something that had previously been a vague memory. The clips also have original commercials for Dial soap and the like.

Related: Just Men! Part 2, Just Men! Part 3.

Weekly Mishmash: October 10-16

Esquire magazine iPad app. Needing something to read for the long plane trip back home from Hawaii, I decided to spring for Esquire‘s grab at the burgeoning magazine app field. This was the October issue, opening with a subtle title card and footage of cover subject Javier Bardem fading into an image of that issue’s cover. Color me impressed: instead of magazine pages merely transferred to digital, each article is designed to fit with the iPad. The app is organized around a interface that brings the issue’s contents to the fore with one tap. The editors include just enough interactive content to be snazzy yet not obnoxious. I ended up reading the entire issue (save the long, long Philip Roth profile) on that plane trip.
album_ebtgworldwideEverything But The Girl — Worldwide. Everything But The Girl is one of my fave groups. Part of the appeal of Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn’s back catalog is that it’s so eclectic, ranging from quasi-Smiths jangle to mellow jazz-pop to techno. 1991′s Worldwide dates from the duo’s maligned Adult Contemporary period, and since it spawned zero hit singles it remains the only EBTG album not currently available for download. Despite the sometimes dated production styles, it’s actually a nifty little album which generally sticks with the pensive acoustic pop of classic EBGT. As usual Watt and Thorn contribute songs both as a duo and separately, with Watt’s material tending towards the sentimental and Thorn’s writing being diamonds in the rough (her two tracks, “You Lift Me Up” and “One Place” are highlights). Opener “Old Friends” is awash in mawkish synths reminiscent of something like the Force M.D.’s “Tender Love,” but the song itself is a lovely paean to the power of friendship. Typical of an album that grows on you with each successive listen.
Last Tango in Paris (1972). Controversial in its time, this is the film that inspired Pauline Kael to write a rapturous New Yorker review proclaiming it a cinematic game changer. After finally seeing it this week, I have to wonder what the fuss was about. It does boast a powerful, uninhibited performance by Marlon Brando as an American expatriate who is grieving his Parisian wife’s suicide. While squatting in an empty apartment, he meets a pretty college-aged girl (Maria Schneider) and the two have a torrid affair which over time turns into an unpleasant power struggle. This was directed and scripted by Bernado Bertolucci, coming out two years after his superior WWII drama The Conformist. Although the film does have a few interesting scenes (particularly those between Schneider and her filmmaker boyfriend, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud), mostly it seemed like some random skeevy straight guy’s fantasy put to film. It’s awfully disjointed and not very sexy (to be fair, it wasn’t meant to be), and I kept feeling sorry for Schneider, who was the ultimate victim of this chauvinistic enterprise. I actually looked up Kael’s review after viewing this, and although I can see her point about it being revelatory for the era the film generally doesn’t hold up. Forty years on, the main reasons for viewing would be the luminous cinematography and Brando’s still surprising acting chops.
1959: The Year Everything Changed by Peter Kaplan. A brisk, fascinating read about the varied achievements of a single year — 1959. Grandiose subtitle notwithstanding, this book proves its point with easily digestible chapters covering advances in civil rights, Cuba/Communism, jazz, Vietnam, the Beats, envelope pushing comedy and literature, Motown, the space race and much more. Although the chapters are on the shortish side, they contain a lot of detail. Some of the areas covered illuminated subjects completely new to me — the making of John Howard Griffin’s race study Black Like Me and Margaret Sanger’s tireless campaign for female reproductive rights, for instance. I suppose Kaplan could have written a book like this on any given year, but 1959 served as a catalyst for the complex ’60s and the book is as good an argument for that as anything else available.
poster_unholypartnersUnholy Partners (1941). One of the nice byproducts of our Maui trip is that our hotel room television had Turner Classic Movies. Good old TCM, how I missed you so! We had a few extra hours one morning, so I stuck it on TCM’s birthday tribute to actress Laraine Day. Unholy Partners is a routine MGM drama in which Day has one of her usual lovesick lady roles, this time opposite the dynamic Edward G. Robinson. In this overheated yarn, returning WWI vet/newspaper editor Robinson is itching to try something new and exciting, so he hooks up with the well-connected and powerful Edward Arnold to start up a juicy, sensational tabloid, a move that introduces him to New York’s shady underworld while alienating his loyal cronies. I enjoyed the interplay between Robinson and Arnold, but mostly this was a standard drama filled with anachronistic touches and bland supporting players. The film climaxes with Day’s earnest and wildly inaccurate speech declaring that “the tabloid age is over.” I suppose this gal never watched the Fox News channel.

Back from Paradise

snorkel_01_sm

Well, we’re back and completely rested after our October 9-13 trip to the island of Maui. Neither of us has ever been to Hawaii; it met my expectations in several areas even exceeded them (the weather and the mellow, friendly vibe of the locals). We stayed at the Honua Kai Resort and Spa, which was beautifully appointed if somewhat mainstream and white family-centric (I tend to prefer smaller, funkier lodging). The first night, we went out on the beach for a walk and beheld the most gorgeous sunset, framed by the neighboring islands of Lanai and Molokai. The photo above is of the two of us during our snorkeling trip. I loved the snorkeling! It’s like swimming in a giant saltwater aquarium. We also sampled a lot of food, ranging from heavenly to wretched (basically anything purchased in an airport). Everything is expensive, but I’ll learn to live with it until it’s time to pay the MasterCard bill. You can’t put a price on the memories and experiences we came away with.

I’ll post a more detailed trip report — later!