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Weekly Mishmash: November 14-20


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!

2 Thoughts on “Weekly Mishmash: November 14-20

  1. Brad In Worcester on November 21, 2010 at 9:34 pm said:

    So Many Things To See!!!
    I have my Mom and Her Husband in town this week for Turkey Day so I won’t have much time for Personal Viewing, but you’ve given me Lots Of Options after they’ve left— Thank You!
    Have a lovely Thanksgiving.
    We Dig You Guys With A Steam-Shovel!…

  2. Brad In Worcester on November 23, 2010 at 10:15 pm said:

    Oh. One More Thing:
    “Grizzly Man”–ICK.
    I was a very, very close friend of the Girlfriend (Jewel) of the Guy Who Was Eaten when we were both undergrads at USC in the early ’80’s and I feel so bad for all concerned.
    Let’s just shout out, “Fitzcarraldo, Yea!” and leave it at that, yes?

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