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Weekly Mishmash: November 21-27

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.

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