Archive for November, 2010

Weekly Mishmash: November 21-27

Sunday, November 28th, 2010

Belle and Sebastian — Write About Love. Given this album’s mixed reviews, I was leery but decided to give it compulsive download off eMusic (their label was leaving the site). Belle and Sebastian’s fans tend toward two camps: those who love the early, twee indie stuff and those who love the later, more polished sound. This new album seems to have alienated both. On first listen, the album seems pleasant if exceedingly safe and half-baked. Further exploration ought to reveal more depth to the songs, but mostly they come across as throwaways. I totally dug The Life Pursuit (2006) and Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2004), but it’s been nearly five years and I was expecting much more than a formless grab bag of folskiness and jumpy, ’60s tinged pop. This outing is a bit different in allowing guest performers: Norah Jones is her usual scintillating self on “Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John,” but she’s simply too unique to fit into the B&S universe. It’s a jarring presence and the fact that the song is underwhelming doesn’t help at all. At least the chipper singing voice of actress Carey Mulligan is more smoothly integrated on the title cut (one of the better tracks, actually). This isn’t a horrible album — three or four tracks would be a great addition to a “Best of B&S” mix — but it isn’t terribly distinctive or great, either.
Gold Diggers In Paris (1938). My second offering from the Busby Berkely vol. 2 DVD set is the last (and weakest) of the Warner Bros. Gold Digger musicals. Exchanging Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler/Joan Blondell for the considerably lower-wattage Rudy Vallee and Rosemary Lane is the first clue that we’re in for a more grounded, less glitzy time. The slight story opens on a South Seas-themed nightclub run by cash-strapped Vallee and the wonderful Allen Jenkins. When French emissary Hugh Herbert mistakenly visits the club and invites Vallee’s chorus girls to perform at that year’s Paris Exhibition, Vallee and Co. must hurredly get the troupe trained in classical ballet and hope that Herbert doesn’t notice. Meanwhile, Vallee deals with a chiseling ex-wife (Gloria Dickson) and falls for the elegant lady (Lane) who works at the ballet school. Silly nonsense, basically. There’s still some fun to be had, especially in the scenes with Jenkins and stocky Edward Brophy as a dim-witted gangster who tears up at the sight of beautifully performed ballet movements. The film also has goofy faced, mugging blonde Mabel Todd, an odd novelty jazz combo called The Schnickelfritz Band, and a subplot involving a talking dog — signs that this once-elegant series was taking a turn towards the lowest common denominator.
poster_mutiny35Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). Rented this for the simple reason that it was one of the few 1930s Best Picture Oscar winners I had yet to see. I don’t know why it was avoided so long; the picture is a swell maritime adventure and a good example of Hollywood studiocraft in its prime. As for the story, you know it by now — a British shipping vessel bound for Tahiti is commanded by the fierce Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton). As the voyage goes on, his increasingly tyrannical behavior causes first mate Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) and midshipman Byam (Franchot Tone) to stage a revolt and stay on the tropical island. What’s interesting about this film is the pacing — the first and last fifths are dense and plot-heavy, while the middle part takes its time in showing both the escalating tension caused by Laughton and the idyllic paradise once the men land in Tahiti. I liked both that and the acting (especially Laughton, who is a formidable presence). The film also seemed refreshingly non-stagy. The boat scenes are as realistic as possible, and I don’t know where they filmed the tropical scenes but they put the viewer right there with the swaying palms and such. The only cheesiness came in one brief special effects shot when a crewman was dragged underneath the ship (it looked like a doll in an aquarium). As history it’s questionable, too, but when it comes to good old fashioned storytelling the film is tops.
Opening Night (1977). Searing John Cassavetes film about an actress (Gena Rowlands) whose boozy life spirals downward after witnessing the accidental death of one of her fans. This was typical Cassavetes/Rowlands territory, on the unpolished, long and meandering side but engrossing all the same. I had a similar reaction to A Woman Under The Influence in wondering how the actors held up after playing characters who are put through an emotional ringer scene after scene. Unlike Woman, this film spends a lot of time exploring the mechanics of the characters’ workplace — it is interesting (and cool) to watch various play scenes being acted out from both backstage and the audience’s point of view. On the acting side, Rowlands, Cassavetes (who plays a fellow actor) and Ben Gazzara (as Rowlands’ director) are all very good. I also relished seeing an older, matronly Joan Blondell in the cast and acquainting herself well with a casual ’70s indie milieu. This was a good film, with a notably uninhibited lead performance, but with more editing it could have been truly fantastic. One gets the feeling that Cassavetes was too invested in the footage to step back and trim at least a half hour from his own movie.
Suicide Squad (1935). Another poverty row Joyce Compton picture, and one of her worst (having sat through the likes of Escape To Paradise and King Kelly of the U.S.A., that’s saying a lot). This was a routine (boring) and modest (dirt cheap) fire fighting drama in which Compton co-stars with Norman Foster as an overly confident firefighting recruit. I have a more thorough writeup on the Joyce Compton News & Notes weblog.

Gumshoes and Shady Dames Away

Saturday, November 27th, 2010

Mark of classic film blog Out of the Past is counting down his choices for the 100 Greatest Posters of Film Noir; #100-91 is already posted. Having enjoyed his Netflix reviews for some time now, I’m really looking forward to this series. Movie posters from that era tend to be either hideous or beautiful… can’t wait to see what comes up!

The Abdominal Engorgement Sojourn

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving. Every time I get in the kitchen with my otherwise lovely spouse, thoughts of Phil Hartman’s Anal Retentive Chef from Saturday Night Live come to mind. I showed that Hulu clip to Christopher. His only comment was that Hartman’s waste disposal technique needed fine tuning. Hmm. I’m going to spend the holiday cooking with this guy!

Our second clip is the introduction to the Carpenters’ 1978 Space Encounters TV special. I’ve always wanted to see this one. From the Wikipedia page:

Space Encounters begins with Richard and Karen Carpenter performing “Sweet, Sweet Smile” in their recording studio, assisted by Charlie Callas. As they are performing, we see that they are being observed by the occupants of an alien spaceship (John Davidson and Suzanne Somers) who are on their way to Earth to meet The Carpenters. After Richard and Karen finish the song, the lights in the studio begin to flicker uncontrollably and musical instruments begin to move and play by themselves. At that moment, John teleports down to the studio and tells Richard and Karen how the people from his planet lack the ability to make music and he requests their help. Richard and Karen tell John about their earlier days in music and John uses his hi-tech pocket video screen to show The Carpenters performing “Fun Fun Fun” and “Dancing In The Street”. After watching them, John tells them he wants to try singing himself and teleports to a more romantic setting to perform “Just The Way You Are”.

And that’s only the beginning! The entire special is on YouTube, separated into eight parts. Something to keep in mind on Thursday while fighting post-turkey sleepiness.

Weekly Mishmash: November 14-20

Sunday, November 21st, 2010

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Aelita, Queen Of Mars (1921). A Russian silent film that deals with a colony of martians and the comrades back home who are attempting to reach them. The lengthy terra firma portions of this film drag along in dogmatic Commie propaganda, but if anything this is a must see for the eye-popping martian sequences. These were designed by Yuri Zheliabovsky and Alexandra Exter in high Russian Constructivist style, with angular staircases, wild costumes and amazing theatricality. If nothing else, the boxy, contrasty 1921 version of robots must be seen. It’s Art Deco before Art Deco came along, and quite a visual feast. We watched this streamed on Netflix, too.
Billy the Kid (2008). Jennifer Venditti’s first documentary follows 15 year-old Billy, an awkward teen who lives in a Maine trailer with his single mom and toddler brother. We follow the boy as he philosophizes on life and attempts to make a crazy-eyed girl working at the local diner his first girlfriend. The camera’s presence makes things more uncomfortable, however. Billy seems like a bright kid, a bit weird but needing to find his way in a manner typical of boys his age. The camera’s presence is uncomfortable, however, and many scenes linger on way too long. I have nothing against Billy or his prosaic surroundings (school lockers, dingy store fronts, bicycles and message t-shirts abound), but the subject is much too banal for a feature length doc. Perhaps a more skilled filmmaker could have made this a nice “slice of life” episode of Independent Lens on PBS, but as it is this was a huge bore.
Encounters at the End of the World (2007). Werner Herzog’s recent documentary on the South Pole and the oddball scientists studying there was very highly regarded, but I can’t remember an instance where I was so let down by a doc. This was especially disappointing since I found Herzog’s Grizzly Man one of the most compelling things I’ve ever seen. For this project, Herzog journeyed to the pole with only the vague promise that he wouldn’t focus too hard on the penguins. He narrates throughout in his charming German-accented voice, hanging around a dingy settlement populated with a variety of likable, hippie-ish folk who are there to spelunk in freezing waters, study the shifting climate and discover new microscopic species daily. Worthy subjects to film, sure, but the end result could have used some added finesse and a lot more tight editing. Not necessarily MTV-style cutting, but Herzog seems to linger around these people to an uncomfortable degree. There’s also a lot of supposedly beautiful underwater footage oddly scored to chanting and droning violins (which prompted much turning down of the volume). In between, Herzog does lots of tiresome speculating about how mankind is doomed to extinction, mustn’t mess with nature’s force, etc., points he covered more concisely in Grizzly Man.
Exam (2009). Understated British indie that does wonders with a diabolically simple concept. At a pharmaceutical conglomerate headquarters set in an unspecified future, eight job applicants are locked in a windowless room with vague rules that they must answer a question within a specified time. The nature of the question is not given; they are only given strict instructions not to soil the papers they each have on separate tables, nor can they address the attending security guard or the company official (observing them from another room). They are given 80 minutes to find out the question (or questions). What follows is an increasingly tense test of wills in which the applicants cooperate, connive and eventually struggle for their own lives. The unusual premise is effectively handled; director Stuart Hazeldine gets several good performances out of a mostly unknown cast (I only recognized actor Jimi Mistry, playing a role very different from his affable gay man in Touch Of Pink). Some of it unfolded predictably, but overall both of us were very impressed. It reminded me of Moon in demonstrating what quality acting and a nice, tightly written script can achieve.
poster_hisdoublelifeHis Double Life (1933). Another offering from the Comedy Kings 50 Movie Pack set, this farce might be considered a pleasantly quaint relic if it weren’t for the two stars, Roland Young (Brit best known for the two Topper movies) and Lillian Gish. Young plays a famous, reclusive artist who winds up inadvertently assuming the identity of his own valet after the man dies. The artist’s passing sends shock waves through the community. Things are further complicated when Young meets spinster Gish, who had been having a romantic correspondence with the valet. This is a creaky property which gets fairly ridiculous in the final courtroom act, but it’s interesting if only to see Gish in an early talking role. She’s as luminous here as she ever was in silents, and the actress refreshingly plays the role as a strong, sensible woman. It’s no wonder Young falls for her.
album_stetienneSaint Etienne — Tales from Turnpike House. eMusic purchase. Retro pop trio Saint Etienne was one of my fave ’90s groups — but after the rudderless techno noodling on 2000′s Sound of Water and 2002′s Finistierre, they fell off my radar. When Tales from Turnpike House arrived in 2005, I honestly barely noticed. Even so, a Pandora station dedicated to the groovy trio seemed to favor several Turnpike tracks. I delighted in them in the same way Jacqueline Susann enjoyed a new Pucci print pantsuit. The tracks were light and effortlessly chic, harking back to the good old Saint Etienne and yet with a refinement suitable for a new era. The album itself is a suite revolving around the various goings-on in a typical British neighborhood, smartly observant and exactly what I’d expect of them. Much of it takes on a gentle, bossa nova influenced groove, only with bits of Beach Boysish harmonies and current electro-dance pulses (as on “Lightning Strikes Twice”) to liven up the proceedings. It’s fantastic. Why did I miss out on this for so long? This is the latest Etienne album to date, sadly, but all nine of their long players have recently undergone the deluxe reissue treatment in the U.K. Me want!

Anniversary Fox Print

Saturday, November 20th, 2010

This weekend, Christopher and I celebrate the 16th anniversary of when we met. I made up a little screenprint as a gift for him. The design is based on this vintage ’60s Fox River paper box that I’ve always loved. The print came out somewhat blobby, but I like it:

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The Right Kind of Mom Jeans

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

Made me laugh — the literal reinterpretation of the music video for Jeremy Jordan’s 1992 single “The Right Kind of Love.” Blonde Jordan was a Marky Markish teen idol of the era, with his one hit riding on the coattails of the Beverly Hills 90210 soundtrack. The song itself is a pretty fly groove, but the captions on the video (very of-its-time) are hilarious!